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Immigrants Bring Homeland Spirit to Christmas Season


Gift giving, music and prayer. These are ways that Christians almost everywhere commemorate Jesus' birth. Still, every Christian immigrant group in America practices those traditions in ways that evoke their cultures of origin. VOA's Adam Phillips visited West African and Russian congregations in New York City to see how they've brought their own spirits to the season.

To most American ears, Russian Orthodox Christmas music may have a certain doleful quality, at least compared to the merrier lilts of the Christmas carols they are used to. But Ana Kouznezoff, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1922, says the tone of the music is appropriate. The 40 days leading up to the Christmas Feast are fast days in the Orthodox calendar. Unlike in American culture, neither meat nor revelry is allowed at this time.

"In some ways, the Russian is more the Christmas that belong(s) to God," Ana says. "In America, it's most of all the gifts. Buying, buying, buying. It doesn't feel the way we understand it. For me, the best way to celebrate is to come here to the "church."

The Christmas feast and the ten days of religious celebration which follow are joys that Ana and her fellow believers were denied while Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, where religion was suppressed.

"They ask[ed] us to go to work especially on Christmas," she says. "They do that deliberately so the people could be on the work so they wouldn't be celebrating."

In the United States, Ana says, "We have freedom. If you want to celebrate Christmas you do it. If you don't want it, nobody force[s] you to do it."

For the younger generation, that means the freedom to adopt American customs, like singing popular American Christmas carols.

In a small Orthodox cathedral in Manhattan's East Village, where Russians, Estonians, Serbs, Georgians and Greeks worship together, children also sing English-language carols in the traditional Orthodox style.

Nino, 10, sings in the choir and enjoys both New World and Old World Christmas traditions. "I love Christmas because that's the day when our Savior was born," she says. "Everything comes alive and everybody's so happy and the snow is so beautiful and we are all having a good time."

Nino says in her native Georgia, and now here, they have a big feast that features special foods. "There is one called 'kutchna poori,'" she says. "There are two doughs and also cheese. It's just like pizza. It's really yummy and it's really filling!"

Food is also an integral part of traditional West African Christmas celebrations. "In Africa when it comes to Christmas, oh my God! It's a big, big, big, big thing," says Joyce Donkor of the Ghana United Methodist Church in the Bronx.

She says Africans' ten-day celebration of Christmas is all about God and community. "We cook together and we invite people to come and eat: chicken, rice and Foo-Foo [A doughlike food] and yams."

Donkor says by comparison, Africans find Christmas in the Bronx "boring" and the celebration too short. "Yes! You see it on TV, but come the 25th [December] you won't see it no more. But back home, it's not like that."

In contrast to New York's urban culture, the Ghanaian way of life is mostly rural and farm-based. This is reflected in its Christmas worship traditions.

"We go to church and we have our first fruits. Every church has to do like a harvest," Donkor says. "So whatever you have from your farm you have to give some to the Lord, like an offering."

While Christmas gift giving is an important custom in Ghana just as it is here, Reverend Acquaah-Harrison says his culture places far more emphasis on personal reflection and gratitude.

"It's very, very Ghanaian," he says, explaining that people think about who has touched their lives and show their appreciation through gifts. "I may be going with yams, tomatoes and onions, something to cook and eat with. Sometimes it's cloth locally made," says Acquaah-Harrison. "They bring some distinguished things. So that makes Christmas very special."

On this day, Bishop Jeremiah Park (the presiding bishop of the United Methodist Church for the New York Region) is visiting the Ghana church, one of scores of ethnically-based Methodist congregations under his care. Park acknowledges that it is a challenge for any immigrant to adapt to new customs in this country while preserving one's heritage.

"But at the same time we really find the gifts that come from diversity. Diversity is a cause for blessing," Park says. "All of God's people from all different kinds of backgrounds can add something to the larger picture for the building of a better world together."

Bishop Park says the spirit of peace in harmony is appropriate not only at Christmas, but always.

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