Holiday Sharing: What’s Different about the Way We Celebrate?

by Brenda Hornberger, Northeast Regional Administrator

The holidays are upon us - a great time to learn about cultural differences! In our host family/student placements this year, we have a wide mix of those that celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and those that don’t celebrate at all this time of year. What an opportunity this offers to expand our horizons!

What stands out in my mind the most about past student reactions to an American Christmas is how BIG everything is – the number of presents found under the tree, the outdoor holiday displays in the neighborhood, the number of different cookies/candies we make, the huge amount of relatives that show up on Christmas Day, and how early we start to prepare. Our students have embraced our traditions with open minds and open arms and while we were sharing our traditions with them, they, in turn, were sharing theirs with us.

My family has been touched by and has embraced many of the different ways students who are now our “children” have celebrated (or not) throughout our many years of hosting. One of our first students (from Norway) introduced us to her family tradition of eating Rice Porridge on Christmas Eve. The porridge is topped with butter and cinnamon/sugar and a nut is hidden in the pot. Whoever finds the nut receives a special surprise. Even though our first adventure in making the porridge did NOT turn out well – we couldn’t find the correct kind of sticky rice – it was something we had never experienced before and has become one of my new favorite comfort foods. Yum! Our first German student introduced us to Advent calendars before you could find the cardboard calendars with windows so easily in the U.S. That year, her mom and siblings created a calendar from toilet tissue tubes and tissue paper and sent it to her to share with our son. The following year, we took on this tradition in our own way by making mini stockings (and bone shapes for the pups, of course!), filling them with chocolates and dog treats and stringing them throughout our house. That was 20 years ago – and we still enjoy this tradition today – and have shared it with every student who has lived in our home since. And these are just two of the many, many memories our family has gathered.

How can you turn this year’s holiday celebration into a learning experience for all?

  • Even if your religion is the same as that of your student, don’t assume the way they celebrate is the same as yours.
  • Even if your student’s religion is one that does not celebrate at this time of year, don’t assume that they don’t celebrate. We hosted a Muslim student who exchanged gifts with her friends and sometimes received gifts from her parents. Call it societal pressure….
  • Ask questions about how your student celebrates at home. Do they have a tree? Real or artificial? How is it decorated? Do they have other days that figure prominently in their celebration? St Nikolas Day, St Lucia Day, and Three Kings Day come to mind, but I am sure there are many more.
  • Is there anything special that they eat traditionally during the Holidays? Christmas Eve dinner? Christmas Day dinner? Cookies, pastries, candies? Ask them to prepare something for you! Even if it doesn’t turn out well, it’s a memory worth making. Share your recipes with them. Many of my favorite cookies and candies are being made all over the world – Oreo Truffles probably top the list!

Here in SouthCentral Pennsylvania, we offer our students, host families and friends the opportunity to visit New York City the first Saturday of December, which is the first weekend AFTER the tree at Rockefeller Center is illuminated. The city is packed but the reaction of the students is priceless. For some, it is their first time ever in the city. For others, they’ve been there before but never at Christmas. I hope you enjoy the photos and video from this year’s trip.

We would love to hear about the family traditions you will be sharing with your student this year, or what your student is/will be sharing with you.  

Wishing you and yours a Happy Holiday Season, whenever and however you celebrate!