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

China May Be Biggest Winner From Ukraine Crisis

Missile sales, oil and gas shipments are among many areas that may drive Beijing and Moscow closer together in coming years More

Obama Faces Chaotic World, Limits of Power

Current foreign policy issues bring into focus challenges for US policymakers who are mindful of Americans' waning appetite for overseas military engagements More

SADC Meeting Lesotho Officials to Resolve Stalemate

Official says regional bloc has been engaged with leaders in Lesotho to resolve political disagreement that led to coup attempt More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
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 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.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid