Immigrants blend Christmas traditions from home and America

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 25, 2011 - 9:31 AM

For many, the emphasis on gift-giving and Santa Claus can be a financial strain and a cultural oddity.

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Teferi Nigatu’s six children, from left, Zabalon, 12; Selam 8; Dena, 12; Natnael, 4; Fikeremariam, 9; and Miheret, 6.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Teferi Nigatu dreamed of this Christmas for years. It's the first one that he, his wife and six children will spend together in the United States since arriving from Ethiopia.

To celebrate the holiday, they've trimmed a tree, exchanged gifts and "played Santa" -- traditions they didn't observe in their native country but are embracing in their new Minneapolis home.

"Every person is waiting until the last day, wondering with great joy what is in the [gift] box," said Nigatu. "It's full of excitement, the waiting. That's what makes me like Christmas [in America], because there is excitement in the patient waiting."

The Nigatus are among a growing number of foreign-born newcomers to Minnesota who celebrate the holiday by adopting new customs that they discover here while blending traditions from their native countries, as well.

Many new immigrants to the Twin Cities arrive with little money or resources and tend not to buy loads of Christmas gifts. They emphasize spending time with family members and friends and observing the birth of Jesus.

In Minnesota last year, there were around 380,000 foreign-born people, up from about 358,000 the year before, the vast majority settling in the Twin Cities, said state demographer Tom Gillaspy. About a quarter of newcomers are refugees escaping political upheaval and other strife in their homelands.

While census data don't track religious affiliation, agencies that help immigrants resettle in Minnesota estimate that a significant portion are Christians.

More gift giving

Bruce David Forbes, author of "Christmas: A Candid History," said many new immigrants note the increased commercialism surrounding the holiday. It's often different from their countries, where Christmas is less a culturally dominant event centered around gift giving and more a religious celebration. Because immigrants can't afford many gifts, they tend to do other activities as a community that don't involve a lot of money.

"For immigrants struggling financially, the contrast is going to be striking," said Forbes. "The cultural Christmas [in the United States] has been exported, even to areas that aren't Christian. Just as Western, and in many cases American culture, has been exported all over the world, Christmas has also been part of that."

One of the fastest growing immigrant groups in Minnesota is the Karen people, an ethnic minority in conflict with the government in Myanmar. Most of the estimated 5,000 Karen in Minnesota came from refugee camps in Thailand.

The Rev. Mike Anderson, pastor at the Church of St. Bernard in St. Paul, said dozens of Karen attend the Catholic church. Most are homesick the first year or two in the United States and want to practice Christmas traditions from their homeland.

Like many immigrant groups, however, as they become established in new homes, jobs and schools, they begin to take on more Americanized Christmas customs.

"I think they find it a bit overwhelming," Anderson said. "Some of them don't even have the resources to engage with that [Christmas activities] at this point. They're just trying to survive and figure out, 'What is going on here?'"

Ma Nu, 44, a Karen refugee, arrived in the Twin Cites in October with her two young children. She doesn't speak English, and she's still adjusting to life here. This Christmas, she plans to attend church services and share a meal with others from the Karen community.

"I will just be happy to be in the U.S.," said Nu, who spoke recently through an interpreter at First Karen Baptist Church in St. Paul, which has helped her resettle.

In their villages and refugee camps, the Karen often would go caroling. Instead of exchanging gifts, Karen communities also hold games and other competitions on Christmas Day, with the winners awarded prizes.

Anderson said St. Bernard's is doing both this Christmas. It has organized caroling excursions and on Christmas Day plans games and competitions in a gym, including tug of war, volleyball and a pingpong tournament.

"The whole day sort of goes by and all of a sudden Christmas is done and they say, 'Wow, that was a wonderful day,'" Anderson said. "This whole sense of community they're bringing with them is something we need."

Edna Kiriama, 38, immigrated to the Twin Cities from Kenya with her husband and three children. It's her second Christmas in the United States. She didn't play Santa or trim a Christmas tree in Kenya and hasn't adopted the practice here.

But she finds the sparkling Christmas lights and decorations beautiful and admires the charitable giving that increases this time of year. She's tried to adopt that in her new life and gives when she can.

"Many things don't make sense to me, like Santa, like snowman," said Kiriama, who is a Lutheran. "I don't see the connection to the birth of Jesus to these things. Our Christmas is more like your Thanksgiving here. It's a time of getting together and people travel a lot to go back to their families. You could get a gift ... but it doesn't have to be put in a box and wait for a particular day to open it."

A joyous family Christmas

Seeking a more prosperous life for his family, Nigatu immigrated to the Twin Cities nearly four years ago from Ethiopia. But his wife and children arrived in July, delayed by a time-consuming immigration process. They also had to save money for airfare.

Nigatu, an Orthodox Christian, says many people in non-urban areas of Ethiopia attend church services at Christmas. Instead of exchanging gifts, they play a hockey-like game and have competitions -- like the Karen -- and award prizes to the winners.

Some people in more urban areas do have Christmas trees and give gifts, he said. He did not do such things there with his family, but since arriving in the United States, he's embraced more American Christmas traditions.

His children, ages 4 to 12, have heard about Santa Claus at school and they've asked their parents for Christmas gifts this year. His three girls all want dolls; the boys want toy cars, and one wants a watch. He said it was very depressing not having his wife and children with him earlier, and he's overjoyed to be celebrating their first Christmas here. He doesn't want to disappoint his children.

"My feeling is high," he said. "I'm glad I have my family. Now it's ... double joy for me, for the first time with my kids and wife, celebrating our first Western Christmas."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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