News / USA

Traditions Mark American Christmas for Immigrants

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.
Adam Phillips
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.    

  • A service at The Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in Bay Ridge Brooklyn. Orthodox Christmas is on Jan. 7, 2014. (Adam Phillips/VOA)
  • Choir Director Zlata Mishima, a recent Russian immigrant, holds the costumes for the Snow Queen portion of the Christmas Pageant. (Adam Phillips/VOA)
  • For Rebecca Adjei Ofori at the Ghana United Methodist Church in the Bronx, Christmas is a time for thanksgiving, extended family, peacemaking, and delicious traditional foods. (Adam Phillips/VOA)
  • Handmade flowers (purple for women, white for men) are a symbol of beauty and blessing at the Ghana United Methodist Church. (Adam Phillips/VOA)
  • Twelve year old Rhiannon Larsen played the Saint in this year’s Sanka Lucia procession, a mainstay of Brooklyn’s Scandinavian-American community. (Adam Phillips/VOA)
  • Two little girls from Brooklyn, New York, dressed in traditional Norwegian clothes. (Adam Phillips/VOA)

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.

You May Like

Changing Under Pressure, IS ‘Potent’ as Ever

US intel officials describe Ramadi's fall as concerning, but say it isn't emblematic of larger effort to degrade IS capabilities More

Nigeria Fuel Shortage Shows Fragility of Africa’s Oil Giant

Although it is the largest oil producer in Africa, country has nearly ran out of fuel it needs to power its generators, cars and airplanes over the past week More

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Cari
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
May 27, 2015 9:31 PM
Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs