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Traditions Mark American Christmas for Immigrants

  • Adam Phillips

FILE - Armenian Archbishop Khajag Barsamian pours holy oil from a dove-shaped vessel during the Ceremony of the Blessing of the Water, during Christmas services.

FILE - Armenian Archbishop Khajag Barsamian pours holy oil from a dove-shaped vessel during the Ceremony of the Blessing of the Water, during Christmas services.

What with all the frenzied shopping, the glitzy lights, the incessant pop-style holiday music and a Santa Claus on almost every corner, a mainstream Christmas season in New York can seem decidedly secular, at least in Manhattan. But, in other neighborhoods in the 'Big Apple’, many immigrant and ethnic cultures have their own traditional ways of showing this season’s spirit.

There is nothing remotely secular or even ecumenical about the atmosphere at Brooklyn’s Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church. In its golden candlelit sanctuary filled with icons, the devout prepare for Christmas much as their ancestors have done since the eleventh century.

Choir member Sergey Gordeev comes here every week from his home across the city. He says the mystical music keeps him connected to the Motherland.

“For Russians, it truly is about God, about God being born, about our souls being saved. And what I do love is this unapologetic spirituality. It is very Russian. It is very Russian not to squirm around things," said Gordeev.

The spirit of Russian Christmas is also found outside the cathedral sanctuary, says Holy Trinity’s priest, the Very Reverend Vladmir Alexeev.

He remembers the 12 traditional foods his mother would make for the Christmas feast, and the empty chair she would place at the family table just in case the Magi, the three Biblical kings from the East, needed to refresh themselves on their way to Bethlehem to see the Christ child.

“… and she was telling me to go looking into the window because probably the Magi are approaching it ... and they are very exhausted and maybe this night they will knock on the door and they will take this chair and they will have some food and they will continue their journey," said Alexeev.

While parishioners' children rehearse for the church’s annual Christmas pageant, Father Alexeev says for rural Russians, the Christmas season has traditionally been a time for folk healing and magic spells. Young women would try to see the face of their future husbands in the shifting shadows of candles.

“And if you ask my parishioners, everyone knows how to do that. It is forbidden by the church, absolutely forbidden. But people do that," he said.

At a Brooklyn church, it is time for the Sankta Lucia festival, which marks both the Winter Solstice and the start of the Christmas season. A girl wearing a white robe and a crown of candles leads a small procession of Scandinavian Americans.

According to legend, Sankta Lucia was blinded by her husband for choosing Christianity over paganism. But her sight was miraculously restored. Lucia then brought light to others. Pageant organizer Victoria Hofmo says customs surrounding the saint are still practiced in Northern Europe and Scandinavian American communities.

“So in Sweden, the oldest child, usually the girl, comes with her tray, she has the little Lucia rolls. Lucia rolls are made from saffron, like the sun, and she brings it to her parents at the very point of daybreak. It’s a very lovely custom that we hope to continue," said Hofmo.

Other traditions include the making of miniature “Nisses,” figurines representing mischievous elves and nature spirits, and the cooking of special conical butter crepes. Such seasonal traditions give comfort to Salveig Simonsen.

“I love it. It’s an opportunity to keep it alive, to keep the culture going, to get together with people who share the same things, like cooking and baking, and just being with the people who know who you are!" said Simonsen.

The spirit of African Christmas fills the main hall at the Ghanaian United Methodist Church in the northern Bronx, where men in fine suits and women in colorful intricately tied headscarves and hats sway and pray in their native Akhan language.

In a side room, Rebecca Adjei Ofori, one of the church’s unofficial lay leaders sings a Christmas song with a couple of "church sisters." She explains that Ghanain Christmas is all about expressing love and gratitude within one’s extended family. And, she adds, it is a time to publicly resolve any differences that may have arisen within the family since the previous Christmas.

“And we do not just talk, we eat! We celebrate with a special dishes, like jollof rice, and fufu and peanut butter soup," said Ofori. "Oh my God! [It's good]"

This festival of family and food mirrors another profoundly important ceremony in Ghanaian culture: that of welcoming and naming every new child. It too can last for days. Minister Samuel Nketsia connects the ritual and the holiday.

“We Ghanaians, when a child is born, we honor that child, So when Christ also was born, as Christians. we also honor Christ as being a newborn child to our family," said Nketsia. "So we adore him!”

In this way, he adds, the heavenly and the earthly, the physical and the spiritual, come together in the heart of the community. That, in his view, is really what the Christmas story is all about - wherever you are from.