A First Christmas

Blog made possible by LSSNCA volunteers

This year, Christmas may look different for many of us. Some of us are spending a solitary Christmas or will be video chatting with family members on Christmas morning. Some of us may be suffering financially from the impacts of the pandemic on our local economies. Some of us may be waiting in line at the post office to send Christmas gifts safely home to family members. Some of us may even be spending the holiday from a hospital bed or isolated from family in a nursing home facility. No matter how you are choosing to observe the Christmas holiday this year, it is important for us to remember that many may be experiencing this holiday with those same restrictions but also in a whole new land and community.

The pandemic has not been easy on many of us. For newly-arrived refugee and immigrant families, these difficulties have been exacerbated. As you read earlier in the year, our clients have been impacted financially, through their employment opportunities, and their ability to integrate into and adapt to their new communities. Despite these pandemic-related challenges, newly arrived refugee and immigrant families find themselves trying to navigate a new country, language, and often cultural traditions.

Immigrants and newcomers might seek comfort in celebrating their religious and cultural holidays, often bringing their own traditions with them. In 2020, 94 percent of the families resettled by LSSNCA were Afghan, many of whom are Muslim and thus celebrate Ramadan. We examined what this celebration would look like for them and thousands of other Muslims celebrating the holy month during the pandemic.

Now as we approach Christmas, we are reminded of the meaning behind this season of giving, the birth of the Prince of Peace, and the plight of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus as refugees. Just as the Holy Family fled Bethlehem for Egypt, millions of refugees and asylum seekers flee their homes in search of safety and comfort. Since January 1, 2020, LSSNCA, with the help of many generous partners, has welcomed 369 refugee and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holding individuals to the DMV. These families have fled situations in their home countries which left them no choice but to seek safety in another country. For these individuals and families, this will likely be their first Christmas in the U.S., regardless of whether or not they celebrate the holiday. And it certainly is not a Christmas any of us are used to either.

We decided to take a peek into the lives of three of our Christian clients who will be celebrating Christmas for the first time in the U.S. We wanted to know what this holiday meant to them in the past, how their traditions might change now they are living in the U.S., and how the pandemic may also influence these celebrations.

Arnoldo – Guatemala

Arnoldo and his family will be spending their first Christmas making tamales and sharing them with his sister (who lives nearby) and other Central American neighbors. Unfortunately, Arnoldo said they do not have any gifts under the tree this year. The family just arrived in August and have little money but many expenses.

Arnoldo described how they would celebrate Christmas previously in Guatemala:

We would put up a little tree, an artificial one, around the first of December and decorate it, adding a new ornament every year.  It would stay up until January 20.  There was a Christmas market where you could go and buy everything you needed — trees, lights, ornaments, moss.  People put-up lights on their houses.  There were nativity scenes — Mary, Joseph and on Christmas Eve, the Baby Jesus was added. My mother would help organize posadas — where people went from house to house singing and, at the last house finally being let in to visit.  This was between December 18 and 22 more or less. On Christmas Eve, we would make tamales, like everyone else.  Then we would share them with friends, family and neighbors, and they would share with us.  Mass was at 8 p.m. but the real celebration was at midnight on the 24th.   On Christmas Day, we would have a big family meal at mid-day. 

Unfortunately, Arnoldo observed that he hasn’t seen much Christmas spirit, or atmosphere, around his community this month. He recalled that in Guatemala, “it is a huge fiesta compared to here.” But he did note that his children experienced their very first snow last week and they really enjoyed it and thought it was very beautiful.

Arnoldo reflected on his favorite Christmas memories of his father bringing gifts to his children and his neighbors in Guatemala setting off fireworks at midnight on Christmas. Sadly, Arnoldo’s father passed away recently from COVID-19 complications and this will be their first Christmas without him.

Jacqueline – El Salvador

For Jacqueline, her Christmas memories from El Salvador included her family getting together for a special dinner on Christmas Eve. Though they did not exchange gifts, they had a Christmas tree with a nativity scene.

This year, Jacqueline and her two daughters will be spending Christmas with her brother and his family. Her brother has been in the U.S. now for 5 years, so she is eager to learn how his Christmas customs might have changed.

Jacquelin is happy to be in the U.S. and reunited with her brother and his family. She shared that she was also able to reconnect with her father who has been in the U.S. for 21 years. The last time she saw her father was when he visited El Salvador when she was 9 years old.

Xiomally – El Salvador

For Xiomally, the Christmas holiday is about spending time with her family members, who seem to bring her much comfort and happiness. Before coming to the U.S., her family would celebrate Christmas by exchanging presents, wearing newly purchased Christmas outfits, and preparing for a family meal on Christmas Eve. Around 7pm the family would sit down to eat panes con pollo made by her aunt Teresa. After eating, Xiomally and her sister would spend time outside with friends and her boyfriend. She fondly remembers these moments and the arrival of 12am, when they would rejoice, hug one another, and lay the baby Jesus down behind their Christmas tree to symbolize his birth.

To Xiomally, the celebration of Christmas and the holiday season is exciting with “the feeling of a new year better than the last one.” Now that she is reunited with her father and family members here in the U.S., she is hoping to have a good time celebrating with them here and facetiming others back home. Xiomally reflects that this holiday and her first Christmas in the U.S. means alot to her. Though she feels a little sadness now, she says she will always love this “beautiful season of the year and God is giving me the opportunity to get a new experience and improve my life and my family’s lives.”

We certainly hope this will be a memorable and happy holiday for these three families. They have overcome so much to finally be spending the Christmas holiday here in their new U.S. communities. We wish for them safety, comfort, warmth, and happiness. We hope you will think of their families, and the families of all refugees and asylum seekers, as you glance at your own Christmas tree or nativity scene. May the spirit of giving and welcoming continue into the New Year.

LSSNCA would like to thank our donors who contributed to our Holiday Blessings campaign. Thanks to you we were able to provide gift cards to over 30 families. Additionally, some of our community groups, faith congregations, and individuals have very generously bestowed gifts upon our families this holiday season. To learn more ways you can make an impact on a refugee or immigrant family’s life this holiday season, visit LSSNCA.org.

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