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

Video Experts Warn World Losing Ebola Fight

Doctors Without Borders says world is losing battle against Ebola, unless wealthy nations dispatch specialized biological disaster response teams More

Video Experts: Rise of Islamic State Significant Development in Jihadism

Many analysts contend the group - which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq - has been rebuilding for years More

US-Based Hong Kongers Pledge Support for Pro-Democracy Activists

Democracy advocates call on Chinese living abroad to join them in opposing new election rules for their home territory More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Larger Than Life Chinese Lanterns Make Southern California Appearancei
X
Elizabeth Lee
September 02, 2014 8:57 PM
Chinese lanterns with a long history are lighting up in 21st century style at the Los Angeles County Fair in southern California. Visitors can see traditional lanterns that hang, but also lanterns in the shape of animals, iconic landmarks and many other objects, all created by artisans from a place in China known for its lanterns. Elizabeth Lee has the details from the fair in the city of Pomona.
Video

Video Larger Than Life Chinese Lanterns Make Southern California Appearance

Chinese lanterns with a long history are lighting up in 21st century style at the Los Angeles County Fair in southern California. Visitors can see traditional lanterns that hang, but also lanterns in the shape of animals, iconic landmarks and many other objects, all created by artisans from a place in China known for its lanterns. Elizabeth Lee has the details from the fair in the city of Pomona.
Video

Video Experts See Rise of ISIS as Significant Development

The Islamic State’s rise seems sudden. It caught the U.S. by surprise this summer when it captured large portions of northern Iraq and spread its wings in neighboring Syria. But many analysts contend that the group - which grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq - has been rebuilding for years. VOA's Jela de Franceschi takes a closer look at the rise of ISIS and its implications for the Middle East and beyond.
Video

Video Israel Concerned Over Syrian Rebels in Golan

Israeli officials are following with concern the recent fighting between Syrian rebels and government forces near the contested Golan Heights. Forty-four U.N. peacekeepers from Fiji have been seized by Syrian Islamist rebels and the clashes occasionally have spilled into Israel. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video Ukraine Schools Resume Classes, Donate to Government Forces

A new school year has started in Ukraine but thousands of children in the war-torn east are unable to attend because of ongoing clashes with pro-Russia rebels. In Ukraine's capital, patriotic education has become the norm along with donations to support injured security forces fighting to take back rebel-held areas. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video US Detainees Want Negotiators for Freedom in North Korea

The three U.S. detainees held in North Korea were permitted to speak with foreign media Monday. The government of Kim Jong Un restricted the topics of the questions, and the interviews in Pyongyang were limited to five minutes. Each of the men asked Washington to send a representative to Pyongyang to secure his release. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti has our story.
Video

Video Turkmen From Amerli Describe Survival of IS Siege

Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Shi'ite Turkmen have fled the town of Amerli seeking refuge in the northern city of Kirkuk. Despite recent military gains after U.S. airstrikes that were coordinated with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, the situation remains dire for Amerli’s residents. Sebastian Meyer went to Kirkuk for VOA to speak to those who managed to escape.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.

AppleAndroid