New Traditions

by ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah

Engagement photo

I recently got married—a small, lovely, do-it-yourself affair. One of the things that was fascinating about planning our own ceremony, vows, and celebration is how we thought about tradition, which is so important to both of us. On the surface, at least, we come from two very different traditions on a cultural, geographical, and spiritual level. Marie is from Appalachia, but her ancestry is from the west of Scotland, where I lived for many years. The more we discussed the details, the more I was struck by how much we have in common.

It was a big question from the beginning: with most of my family in another country, what would be the best way to honor my roots? I think our natural tendency as people is to think of tradition in our families as unchanging and maybe just a little bit separate from our daily lives, like fine china you pull out for a special occasion. We feel reluctant or even afraid to change the way our parents, grandparents, and so on did things, so there can be a sort of rigidity that creeps in. But traditions aren’t fragile or even static. In fact it’s quite amazing how much they’re able to flex over time. Traditions are living things, not empty rituals, and they should serve us, helping us celebrate the past even as they guide us into the future.

As we planned the wedding, we thought about the elements that were most important to us. Nature and especially water were in the forefront, as well as the DIY spirit. When Marie told me she wanted to do something in the backyard, I loved the idea because that’s very much how I grew up. We did everything at home, and made lots of things ourselves. When Marie told me her mother offered to make most of the food, I said, “Is she okay with this?” And Marie said, “100%! She grew up poor, so this is what we did.” That made sense to me, because my family was the same way.

Even as we thought about ways to incorporate traditions from other parts of the world like henna painting, I kept coming back to how both of us are Appalachian, if perhaps in different ways. I’m newer to the area, and grew up in England, not unlike the first migrant Appalachians. My grandfather, like Marie’s, was a carpenter. Both of our grandmothers made quilts. And our families were both involved in revolutions against the British: the American Revolution for hers, and the Indian Revolution for mine.

There’s something about the values of family life, cultivating a connection to the land, and grassroots efforts that feels very core to rural identity. I grew up in England in a semi-urban town close to London, but my family—my parents and my grandparents—didn’t come from there. My mother grew up in East Africa, my grandparents come from villages in India, and their traditions and beliefs and values have always felt very core to who I am. I learned about them through family stories that felt tangible, real, and at the center of my upbringing, rather than some distant fairy tale about the past. Long before I visited the rural village where my mom grew up, I understood it through the power of story, and through the ways in which my parents interacted with the world around us.

When I moved to Appalachia, there was an almost uncanny sense of coming home. I vividly remember the first time I visited the Hicks homestead in Beech Mountain, North Carolina. Our first stop was to see Ted Hicks and Rosa Hicks (who were both in the hospital in Banner Elk at the same time). After listening to Ted tell Jack tales from his hospital bed, we drove up the mountain to see the homestead. I got a phone call as soon as we arrived because Ted had timed how long it would take to get to the home, then called to make sure that we arrived. That was exactly what my grandparents encouraged us to do: always check to make sure that a visitor has arrived. Inside the house, in the living room, there were fabrics and quilts, a familiar aesthetic from my travels in India.

Marie and I were engaged in Hot Springs, North Carolina, which some of you may know as the place where Cecil Sharp, the English folklorist, collected folk ballads and songs from the mountains. In many ways, this place helped him lay the landscape for what would become the Appalachian revival. Hot Springs is a beautiful place because it’s on the Appalachian Trail, and it has the ancient French Broad River that runs right through. The whole area feels very magical. After renting a cabin, we sat down on a rock by the river, and I proposed. I didn’t want to get down on one knee because that didn’t feel right. Instead, we sat as we always have—side by side—on a rock. We watched the sunset and listened to the noise of the rapids.

I opened with a nod to tradition, asking Marie if she remembered what red signifies in India. I told her, “Red has been an important color for centuries. When you buy a house and paint part of it red, or you paint patterns in red henna, it’s a color that represents life, love, blood.” And as she looked out across the river, I took out a little piece of red string that I’d put in my pocket in preparation, and I showed it to her as I said, “I give you my life, my love, and my blood.” And I tied that piece of red string around her finger instead of an engagement ring. Marie is an artist, so I knew she’d want to pick one out for herself.

It was a beautiful moment. Later, as we walked along, I suggested we play Pooh Sticks, which is a game from Winnie the Pooh that we used to play as kids. Basically, you stand on a little bridge, and each drop a stick over one side at the same time. Then you peer over the other side of the bridge to see which stick comes out first. Marie and I dropped our sticks, and mine sped underneath the bridge. When we went across to the other side, we saw that both our sticks had been intertwined to form a cross and emerged together. It felt symbolic of the journey we were going on together,like nature was giving us its affirmation.

With a lot of my family spread out across the UK, and with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, it seemed impossible to have a large family gathering. A backyard celebration felt right. We incorporated traditions in a way that both honored the values we grew up with and also felt authentic and right to us. We realized that, in our own space, we really had the freedom to add the love and flavors that we wanted. And I’d encourage anyone to do the same, whether you’re planning a wedding or a barbeque. The playlist, the color, and the foods are all tools we can use to celebrate who we are.

I think about the pagan roots of St. Brigid’s cross, a Celtic symbol that has been very much embraced by the Christian tradition. In a similar way, I think we need to not just represent our cultures, but also unpack them. I may be a newer Appalachian, but I’m Appalachian all the same. Marie may have been born here, but she has roots in Scotland. Underpinning these facts of geography are the values we inherited from our families, our heritage, and our upbringing: a respect for things made at home, by hand. Gestures that come from the heart. Our ancestors and revolutionary spirits crafted stories with their heads, their hands, their hearts, and their souls. We heard them, and in turn we’ll craft our own.