A Hindu-Appalachian Christmas in the City of Brotherly Love
How a simple father-son craft project became a global, epic diorama
Five years ago this month my wife Bidisha and I got married a full Hindu wedding in India. Four years ago our son was born.
This past Thanksgiving while carving the turkey at our Philadelphia home I got to the bone that my granny from rural southwestern Virginia used to save and make into a turkey bone Santa sled decoration at Christmastime every so often. It’s a morbid Appalachian thing, you wouldn’t understand. In a fit of nostalgia I decided I’d give it a whirl and introduce my young son to a part of his cultural history.
To make sure I was really remembering correctly I Googled “turkey bone sled” and one of the first things that came up was someone’s Pinterest page about turkey bone sleds with the header, “My granny made these.” Yep, I was on the right track.
My son and I often do multi-stage, multi-day art projects so I told him we were going to embark on this “small” project. I’m thinking the whole thing will be five or six inches long with a couple of ceremonial reindeer pulling it but he insists that it be the full 9 reindeer, and that there be a full moon, and a Pleiades star cluster (the Seven Sisters), Aldebaran (the brightest star in the constellation Taurus and one of the bull’s eyes), a small pine tree like the one we have in a planter outside our house, and our street sign, and snow on the ground, and hovering in the sky above Santa there should be Kartik. Without missing a beat I told him fine but that he’d need to design it on paper first so we’d know exactly what we were making and not leave anything out.
Kartik? That would be the Hindu god Kartik, less famous brother of Ganesh. Kartik is the Pete Best of major goddess Durga’s children. I later learned it’s impossible to find an altar figurine of just Kartik alone, so I convinced my son instead to go with Kartik’s mother.
Now…first came painting the sled. We looked at some Santa’s sleds online and rolled with traditional red and gold. But then he wanted the interior to be rainbow colors. I looked at him dead earnest and said, “You realize this is very nontraditional? It’s not what people think of when they think of Santa’s sled. Are you okay with that? Are you sure you want the inside of Santa’s sleigh to be rainbow colors?” He said yes, so off we went.
Next we needed a tiny poseable Santa who could be made to sit in the sled. Everything I found new was made of hard plastic resin so I turned to Ebay. Plenty of old felt and pipe cleaner Santa tree ornaments there. I narrowed it down to one traditional one and one 65-year-old Japanese Santa that looks out of this world and for some reason is holding a leaf or branch in his hand. I gave my son the choice and he rolled with Japanese Santa.
I explained that Japanese Santa looks awesome but to bear in mind that if we choose him we’re really doing something unexpected here. He was cool with that. I sewed from red felt a little drawstring bag and we filled it with fake tiny wrapped presents and candy canes, then glued the bag and Santa into position in the sled. Then, what the heck, we pimped it out with running lights. Battery pack #1.
When we went to get real North American reindeer figurines instead of generic brown deer and saw the size I started realizing this diorama was going to need to be 30 freaking inches long and at least 12 inches high. It kept snowballing (see how I did that?) into a month-long epic project involving making and staining a wooden frame, painting and drilling holes into a thin plywood backdrop, lots of Crazy glue and hidden wiring beneath the painted and glittered clay snow.
And how to make Rudolph’s nose glow? Enter Radio Shack, a soldering iron, wires, on-off switch, mini-LED and my pulling my old electrical steampunking skills out of retirement for one last job. Battery pack #2.
Then there is the Pleiades and Aldebaran light string. We made the full moon from a ping pong ball so we could put a light inside it. Battery pack #3.
And of course we put a few lights on the little tree to match the one outside our house and to give Durga an overhead spotlight. Battery pack #4.
We completed our epic, one-of-a-kind, multicultural Christmas diorama last evening. I hope his children and my grandchildren will appreciate it someday.