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

Lebanese Media Unite to Support Palestinians in Gaza

Joint newscast billed as Arab world’s first unified news bulletin in support of Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip More

Photogallery Australian PM Alleges ‘Coverup’ at MH17 Crash Site

Meanwhile, Russia's ambassador to Malaysia denies plane's black boxes were opened before they were handed over to Malaysian officials More

Despite Advances in AIDS Treatment, Stigma Lingers

Leading immunologist tells VOA that stigma is often what prevents those infected with disease from seeking treatment More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid