By Jagdeesh Mann,
Special to The Post
If you should find yourself at either of this month’s Vaisakhi parades in Metro Vancouver, pressed between hundreds of volunteers handing out steaming plates of fresh Indian food, take a moment to think about Christmas.
No, not the modern product-placement version of Christmas as iconised by St. Nick holding up a frosty bottle of Coke. Rewind back 200 years when December 25 wasn’t universally celebrated, when there was no such thing as a Christmas tree, and when most businesses didn’t even consider it a holiday.
Today, as many Christians and non-Christians alike mark the Yuletide celebration, it is the international holiday. It seems conceivable that in multicultural Canada, the South Asian festival of Vaisakhi will transcend its cultural roots and be absorbed into the roster of annual national celebrations.
As it stands today, approximately one million people of South Asian descent in this country circle these dates on their calendars. In the coming two weekends, over 400,000 people will converge to Vancouver’s Punjabi’s Market and 128th Street in Surrey to mark the start of a new year in North India, and concurrently honour the Sikh faith.
The centre-point of the parade is a float showcasing a copy of the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. It pinches its way through the dense crowds and past stages showcasing cultural performances. At hundreds of street stalls along the assigned route, families cook and give out traditional vegetarian fare, from chickpea curries coupled with pooris, to jalebi sweets topped off with hot cups of chai (tea). There are even stalls serving the uniquely Indo-Canadian fusion delight, the deep fried ‘bread-pakora’.
These events in Metro Vancouver are the largest Vaisakhi celebrations held outside of India, yet each year they become a little more uniquely Canadian as the festivities attract more diverse attendance. National institutions like the Canadian Armed Forces have even become an anchor at the parades and dozens of corporations and community organizations wedge for booth space along the parade route.
The economic impact of the event is impressive. According to a study performed by Vancouver consulting firm MNP, the 2014 Surrey Vaisaskhi Parade generated close to $30 million in spending by out of town visitors alone.
On the surface, Vaisakhi in Canada still has a distinctly Indian flavour – much in the same way Chinese New Year has retained its own. But the underlying values of giving back, sharing, and embracing our common humanity – the principles upon which the Sikh faith was founded – are arguably as much Canadian as anything else.
Few today know that jolly Saint Nicholas, AKA Santa Claus, was actually born in Turkey and never saw a snowflake in his lifetime. Does it really seem like such a stretch that the next great Canadian event will have started as an Indian harvest festival revered by Sikhs?