As a child in Gujarat, India, Arun Boghra relished the customs of Diwali, from the festive foods to the fireworks.
“Every year, I would wait for Diwali, and when it came, we would throw firecrackers into the street, with our parents watching,” said Boghra, 53, of Ronkonkoma. “And everyone would wait for the holiday because we also would get a lot of sweets and fancy foods, including fried foods, which we didn’t eat every day.”
Boghra, an information architect at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, and the father of two daughters, Dreshta, 17, and Nishta, 20, immigrated alone to the United States in 1996. But he said he has continued to make meaningful memories during Diwali, a five-day Hindu holiday also known as the Festival of Lights that celebrates knowledge, truth and light over darkness. It is generally celebrated with a major festival on the third day, which this year landed on Nov. 12.
Particularly special was the year Dreshta’s second-grade teacher asked her to give a talk about Diwali for her class. Afterward, Boghra said, her teacher sent a note home about the positive response she had gotten.
“Everyone liked it and asked questions,” Boghra said. “The teacher also mentioned it during parent-teacher meetings.” That long-ago feedback not only conveyed respect for “our customs and traditions,” Boghra said, but it filled him with a “very welcoming feeling.”
For many Long Islanders, holiday memories — whether they date back to childhood or the recent past — endure long after the celebrations have passed. While some said holidays during their childhood were memorable for the treats and gifts they received, others cited festivities in their adult years as meaningful, particularly those that involved passing on their cultural or religious traditions to younger family members.
Memories of positive holiday experiences can have emotional value throughout the years, according to Gayle Berg, a psychologist with a private practice in Roslyn.
“These feel-good experiences give us something we can hold onto and replay whenever we may want to,” Berg said. “In this way, it’s like the gift that keeps on giving and enables us to ‘feel good’ when we recall them.”
Such memories can “also serve as an anchor during challenging or dark times,” Berg said.
Holidays can also “trigger feelings of sadness and loss, marshaling bittersweet memories of fun times with a treasured loved one who is no longer with us,” Berg said. “Or we may feel sad to feel the passage of time and realize how the joys of yesteryear are different today than they once were.”
Hampton Bays resident Eileen Carter, 69, has experienced unforgettable Christmases — both happy and stressful.
Through the 1960s, Carter, who grew up in Brentwood and is the third of six daughters, said she happily joined her sisters to help their mother bake “hundreds and hundreds” of holiday cookies — although their destination has remained a mystery.
The siblings also gathered to hang ornaments on the family’s Christmas tree, while their mother assumed responsibility for placing the tinsel, “strand by strand,” said Carter, a retired religious education director.
On Christmas Day, she said, “We’d get up early because we were so anxious to see if we got what we wanted.”
Throughout the years that Carter lived at home, she said Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were about celebrating with the immediate family.
“It was a very special family time,” she said. “There were no interruptions from the phone or any visitors.”
In contrast, Christmas 2009 “was not really a happy one, but we made the best of it,” Carter said.
After her son, Brian, then 33, had undergone a successful kidney transplant, he and the family, including his child Lee, then 6, had looked forward to celebrating Christmas together.
But when Brian unexpectedly had to stay in the hospital a few days beyond Christmas, Carter said that she rushed to Toys ‘R Us on Christmas Eve with her son’s list of gifts for Lee.
Carter said she was afraid that the shelves would be bare, but her worries proved unfounded. At Toys ’R Us, she was able to purchase the Polly Pocket doll and house that Lee had asked for.
To this day, Carter remembered thinking, “It will be the saddest Christmas if Lee doesn’t receive the desired toys and with Brian not home on Christmas.”
Despite all the anxiety of that time, there was joy as well: “The more important part had taken place,” Carter said. “Brian was so blessed to get this transplant.”
Beginning a tradition: Kwanzaa
In 2003, with the celebration of Kwanzaa increasing in popularity, Denise Leary, 56, of Babylon Town, said she started what has become a memorable tradition within her own family.
The desire to introduce the children in the family to the Afrocentric holiday is what motivated Leary, a retired elementary school science and dance teacher, to begin observing Kwanzaa, she said.
The holiday, which begins the day after Christmas and culminates on New Year’s Day, included explanations of Kwanzaa’s seven principles of African culture, which are unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. It also inspired Leary’s holiday practice of wearing African-patterned garments, such as dashikis, caftans and headwraps, as well as beaded jewelry.
Leary, who raised her nephew, Derrick Williams, now 30, said she gave Williams and his younger sister, Jacqueline Leary (who was raised by Denise Leary’s sister, Jennifer Leary) traditional African clothes to wear on Kwanzaa and, in keeping with an African custom, djembe drums, which are played with bare hands.
Kwanzaa and its principles served “to teach Derrick and his sister how to exist and maneuver growing up,” Denise Leary said.
She said she also performed holiday customs like setting aside a table with the symbolic artifacts of the celebration — a unity cup, a basket of fruit and the kinara, a seven-candle holder representing the holiday’s seven days and principles, with one new candle lit each day.
Leary’s holiday table was also a feast of Afrocentric and Southern dishes, including black-eyed peas, which represent “looking to the future,” chicken, chitterlings and macaroni and cheese, she said.
And because Kwanzaa gifts are meant to pay tribute to African culture and “must be handmade, purchased from a Black-owned business or encourage entrepreneurship or independence,” Leary said, she gave the two youngsters African beads and books on starting their own lemonade stand.
“I remember Derrick looking at his Kwanzaa gifts, recognizing that they were not just traditional toys,” she said.
She and Williams also joined her sorority sisters in bringing the holiday’s artifacts, candle-lighting ceremony and seven principles to churches and youth centers throughout Long Island, including Elmont, Freeport, Wyandanch and West Babylon, Leary said.
Both home and communal celebrations “were equally memorable,” Leary said, noting that in the community, “just seeing my neighbors dressed in African regalia was visual, cultural inspiration that validated and solidified people’s enjoyment of celebrating their culture.”
Discovering roots: Chinese New Year
Edward Chung, board chairman of the Chinese Center on Long Island in West Hempstead, didn’t connect with his Chinese heritage, including Chinese New Year, until he was in his 40s.
Chung, 73, of Jamaica Estates, Queens, said his immigrant parents worked long hours in their laundry business, which left no time to celebrate the holiday (to be marked on Feb. 10 next year) beyond eating traditional foods like chicken, fish and noodles, and wishing each other “Happy New Year.”
Instead, the retired CPA and financial adviser, who grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said he enjoyed learning about his friends’ holidays, like St. Patrick’s Day, and sharing the traditional Irish fare of corned beef and cabbage with them.
But when his son, now 36, was 8 years old, Chung said he was inspired to connect to his Chinese culture after enrolling him in a Cantonese-language class so he could communicate with his maternal grandmother.
Chung said he purchased Cantonese-language audio tapes for himself and began to read and attend lectures about the Chinese philosopher Confucius and his teachings.
Since then, Chung said his knowledge of Chinese culture has grown, and he has shared his insights at various community gatherings.
One of the most memorable of these events, he said, was the Chinese Center on Long Island’s annual Chinese New Year celebration in the early 2000s. Held in a Chinese restaurant in Flushing, Queens, the event featured a troupe — that included his son — performing the traditional Chinese lion dance.
“The dance expresses wishes of good health, peace and prosperity for all, and I was proud my son was part of it,” Chung said.
An international Hanukkah
Throughout the years, Rabbi Howard Buechler, 65, of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, has had many memorable Hanukkahs, including one that he celebrated in Israel on a congregational family mission and another that he commemorated on Long Island and in Italy and Israel.
During a 2019 synagogue mission to Israel, Buechler said he and the three dozen other people in the group were mesmerized by the many lit menorahs in the lobbies of the hotels where they stayed.
As the candles flickered, he was especially moved seeing his fellow travelers’ pride in their Jewish identity and the glow in the faces of parents, children and grandparents who had come to Israel “where the wonder of Hanukkah took place,” Buechler said.
And about 10 years ago, after celebrating the first day of the eight-day Festival of Lights at home with his family, Buechler said he and his eldest son, Hillel, now 33, flew to Europe. Spending three days in Italy, they toured Rome, dined on classic kosher Italian dishes and attended services in the main Roman synagogue, as well as a communal menorah-lighting ceremony, he said.
From Italy, father and son traveled to Israel and over four days they visited relatives and observed the Sabbath in Jerusalem. While there, they prayed at The Italian Synagogue, an 18th century building that was reconstructed in Israel in 1952 and is now the center of Jerusalem’s Italian-Jewish community.
Buechler’s cherished collection of menorahs includes two that he purchased during that trip with his son. These ritual items are lasting reminders of a special holiday experience — what Buechler fondly called “my three-continent Hanukkah.”
For Buechler, the holiday, which starts this Thursday night, is “a perfect trifecta — faith, family and food — and everything about Hanukkah is bringing light, joy and celebration.”