Immigrants' first Christmas in America

The mood is festive as 70 recent immigrants gather at the International Institute of Boston for their first American holiday party. A Christmas tree offers a cheery welcome, and staff members sing a medley of carols for guests.

"It's a nice holiday," says a Chinese woman, Qiao Ling. "I like it."

Yet no one could call this a typical Christmas party. Nearly half of those attending come from non-Christian cultures. Chinese newcomers sing a holiday song, while food ranging from Bosnian pies to Middle Eastern dishes suggests a mini-United Nations.

As the United States becomes more diverse, festivities like this one serve as a way of helping newcomers understand traditions in their adopted land. Likewise, the holidays are a time when more Americans reach out to these new arrivals, whose cultural contributions will gradually add texture and interest to this country's traditions, as immigrant communities have done for generations.

"At this time of year, we receive a lot of inquiries about how people can give to refugees and their families, who are newly arrived in the United States," says Barbara Day of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service program in Sioux Falls, S.D. "They want to make newcomers' holidays more festive."

But Americans sometimes have a bit to learn about culturally appropriate ways to extend a welcome. Indeed, it can be a challenge to give in a way that is both meaningful and truly helpful, says Sarah Alexander, social services director at the Boston institute.

"Many Americans want to make sure that families who have a need get something," she says. "That's a big assumption on our part, that people want to have the kind of Christmas we think is a good Christmas."

Americans, for example, "need to have a turkey," she says. "But immigrants don't know how to cook it."

To avoid this kind of cross-cultural confusion, Ms. Day and her group provide lists of culture-appropriate food. Donors buy holiday provisions and deliver them to the agency or to a family's home. "That enables people to have a really nice holiday meal that they might not otherwise afford, with ingredients and foodstuffs they'll appreciate," Day says.

Within the mix of the 900,000 legal immigrants who arrived in 1996 (the latest figure available) are a growing number of non-Christians. And among this year's largest refugee group, Bosnians, a majority are non-Christian, according to Elizabeth Nolan, director of development at the International Institute.

For some, the holiday merriment can be perplexing. "Some have nothing to celebrate," she says. "They have lost their culture, their heirlooms, and sometimes their relatives."

Adnan Zubcevic, who counsels Bosnian refugees at the institute, adds, "If they are having problems in the family, they assume other people are having fun, and they wonder, Why am I not having fun?"

Charitable groups across the country hope to ease that adjustment. Day's program in Sioux Falls, for instance, delivers 100 fully decorated Christmas trees to newly arrived refugees. Local college students also give parties for refugee children. In Los Angeles, El Rescate, a group helping Central American refugees and immigrants, hosts an annual Christmas party for low-income families. Lesbai Henao, social service director, collects money to buy presents for 600 children.

Other Americans extend holiday cultural bridges through education.

Sherry Spaulding, who teaches English at the International Institute, spends an entire class teaching 16 newcomers about American Christmas customs. Their faces reflect curiosity, excitement, and bewilderment.

"Do you know what this is?" Ms. Spaulding asks, pointing to a wreath. A Chinese woman replies, "I don't know how to call it."

"Do you know what Americans call songs at Christmas?" she continues. "They're carols." An Iraqi man smiles broadly and calls out, "Jingle Bells!"

One Bosnian student, Danilo Kupcevic, arrived in Boston four weeks ago with his wife, Silva, and two of their four sons. He tells the class that their Christmas will be a dual celebration. Mrs. Kupcevic, a Roman Catholic, observes Christmas on Dec. 25, while he celebrates the Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7. "It's very nice - twice," Mr. Kupcevic says. The family will put up a tree and attend church on Christmas Eve.

For most of Spaulding's students, New Year's remains the biggest celebration.

Irina Taratuta, who arrived from Russia seven months ago, plans to put up a tree for New Year's, decorating it with American ornaments. She and her husband, she says, "will celebrate same way as in Russia - family, friends. All night people dance, and eat many, many foods."

Another member of the class, Oumar Oumer, comes from Iraq. As Muslims, he and his family will celebrate the Kurdish New Year on March 21. "The children tell me about Christmas," he says. "Their language is better."

Families with children, in particular, face challenges in blending two cultures during the holidays. Pulled by American commercialism, many parents feel pressured to provide gifts, even when resources are limited. Other parents, Ms. Nolan says, wonder "what to do when kids become enamored of Santa." Last year, one Muslim mother worried that Santa Claus would teach her children about Christianity.

Whatever their needs as they find their way in America, many immigrants express appreciation for the help they receive. While Kupcevic remembers the war-ravaged period when he and other Bosnians "had very bad days and months and years," he says, "we are very happy. We have plenty of food and gifts, chairs and beds, and ... everything for the kitchen. People are very kind and friendly to us."

Summing up his blessings he adds, "It's a new life with an old love - my wife."

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