• International families share holiday traditions

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  • Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
    Christmas is just around the corner and the world is suddenly blanketed by snow, full of lights and the sound of Christmas carols everywhere. Families are settling in to all their Christmas traditions, like sledding, watching Christmas movies, baking, drinking hot chocolate by a cozy fire with the stockings all hung in a row and waiting anxiously for Santa Claus.
    For some, it is a time to recognize their faith and celebrate the birth of Jesus. For others, it is a time simply to spend with family.
    Whatever the tradition might be it is recognizable almost everywhere in the United States, but what about other countries? Do they celebrate the same way those in America do or do they have their own ideas and traditions of what Christmas is about?
    Fort Leavenworth is the home of the Command and General Staff College, and therefore, it becomes home to dozens of international families each year, families who have their own ways of celebrating perhaps the most recognized holiday in the world.
    In Albania, there are many traditions that are similar to that in America, but it wasn’t always that way in the 1980s when Albanian Maj. Lorena Papa, Command and General Staff Officer Course student, was a child.
    “Albania was still under communist regime and the religion was not allowed to be practiced, so Christmas was not a day off,” Papa said. “I can recall my grandmother keeping the Christmas tradition alive at home. We woke up early that morning, saying prayers, (dressing) for that occasion. The parents had to go to work and we kids to school. My grandmother used to be home preparing traditional food. The lunch that day was almost dinnertime because we waited for everyone to be home and celebrate together.”
    During this time, Christmas celebrations were modified as New Year celebrations, the Christmas tree was called the New Year tree and the Christmas presents were given on New Year’s Eve.
    Santa Claus was called the grandfather of the New Year.
    “To express the continuation of the legacy, Santa Claus, representing the ending year, on New Year’s Eve appeared transferring his powers to a young boy,” Papa said.
    Finally, in 1991, following the communism collapse, the holiday was allowed to be practiced freely and now all major religious holidays are officially recognized days off, she said.
    Islam and Christianity are the most recognized religions in Albania, Papa said, and there is extraordinary religious tolerance throughout the country.
    “The Albanians associate themselves more with their nationality rather than with their religion. A famous quote in Albania is, ‘The faith of the Albanians is Albanianism,’” Papa said. “Christmas is now a public holiday in our country. Government representatives, religious leaders and common people, despite their beliefs, get on televisions, social media or phone to wish ‘Merry Christmas’ to their Christian brothers and sisters.”
    Page 2 of 5 - Though the traditions in Albania are similar to those in America — church for some, gift-giving, Santa Claus and a family meal — they still have their own traditional touches, Papa said.
    The traditional meal is usually served earlier in the day for lunch and the traditional food is fish, meat, vegetables, fruits and a traditional dessert, all homemade.
    Church, while often attended with relatives, is also attended with friends and even non-Christian believers.
    “We wish each other Gezuar Krishtlindjen, or Merry Christmas,” Papa said.
    While in Albania they still decorate Christmas trees with lights, they also decorate them with red candles, and their socks, or stockings, with the family members’ names, instead of hanging them on the fireplace or on the wall. The Christmas flower is something found in many Albanian homes, even the non-Christian believers, she said.
    “Institutions and businesses use Christmas symbols to decorate their facilities, too,” Papa said. “Another tradition in Albania is whoever can afford it, institutions or individuals, help those in need by offering a Christmas feast and donating goods.”
    However, just like in America, perhaps the most important tradition is the time with family.
    “Albanians share a wonderful bond with their family members and for us, family values stand above anything else,” Papa said. “Hence, Christmas in Albania is a family atmosphere. People love to celebrate in the company of as many family members and close friends as they possibly can.”
    Imagine Christmas morning. There is snow on the ground, the temperature is below 30 degrees and everyone is bundled up in cozy sweaters with warm cups of cocoa in their hands as the family opens presents. Now imagine it is summer, it is 100 degrees outside and everyone is wearing a T-shirt, shorts and sandals. That is Christmas in Rio de Janeiro, the hometown of Brazilian Maj. Flavio Caula Americo dos Reis, CGSOC student. What does this mean? Ice cream for dessert.
    Other than the difference in temperature, Caula Americo dos Reis said the Brazilian traditions are similar to those in the United States, adding that many of the traditions are influenced by both American and European traditions because Brazil is a former Portuguese colony. This includes the traditional colors of red, green and white, Christmas trees in the home and stockings hung on the wall.
    They also include Santa Claus in their celebrations. Many families will have one of the family members dress like Santa and show up in the middle of the night with gifts in his bag, Caula Americo dos Reis said.
    “I think that parking lot costs in Rio have made Santa Claus change his plans about visiting every house though,” Caula Americo dos Reis said.
    Page 3 of 5 - However, what Brazilians love most is celebration, he said.
    “On Christmas Eve, we normally have dinner with our families and, after that, open the gifts that were placed under the Christmas tree during the previous weeks,” Caula Americo dos Reis said. “On Christmas Day, we have lunch together with our families and may wear some clothes or other gifts that we got the day before. Also, we attend Christmas services either in the morning or in the evening.”
    According to a religious landscape study conducted by the Pew Research Study Center in 2018, after surveying more than 35,000 Americans from all 50 states, 70.6 percent of Americans identified themselves as Christians. In Brazil, more than 90 percent identify as Christians, Caula Americo dos Reis said.
    “Christmas has a strong religious meaning for us,” he said. “As we do not have a date for Thanksgiving in Brazil, we normally give thanks on Christmas. We also speak to the children about Jesus and how important he has been to our way of life.”
    Caula Americo dos Reis said he is looking forward to celebrating Christmas in America this year.
    “My family and I are very excited to have our first white Christmas in America,” he said. “Let us see if the weather helps us out on that.”
    Dec. 25, Christmas Day, is the day children and families look forward to all year, but waiting until then to celebrate means missing the celebration in Germany.
    “Different from the custom in the United States, we celebrate Christmas on the eve of the 24th, not the morning of the 25th as you do,” said German Lt. Col. Friedrich Biebrach, School of Advanced Military Studies student. “It has always been like that for at least the last 200 years. Christmas in Germany is the 24th.”
    Biebrach said tradition is important in Germany.
    “An average Christian German family would have a Christmas tree and they would present the gifts to the children under the tree on the eve of the 24th,” Biebrach said. “Prior to that, if they are Christian they go to church between 3 and 5 p.m., depending on the age of the kids. So, then when they come home they present the gifts.
    “After presenting the gifts you mostly have a nice dinner with two to three courses and a couple of nice drinks,” he said, “and most families would also celebrate it with their grandparents and grandkids.”
    The traditional meal changes from family to family, Biebrach said, but will usually be sausage, veal or chicken.
    Though the customs differ from family to family, Biebrach said the traditions within a family are handed down from generation to generation.
    Page 4 of 5 - “If the kids grew up with let’s say sausages (for dinner), then they probably will keep that and hand that over to their kids,” he said.
    Over the years, many families in the United States have switched from having real Christmas trees to artificial trees in the home. Also, light-emitting diode candles are often used to avoid possible fire hazards. This is not the case in Germany, Biebrach said.
    “It is important in Germany for about 95 percent of families that the Christmas trees are real trees, not plastic trees. In Scandinavia, Sweden, Norway and Denmark they have vast plants, huge plants where they cut these trees in November and export them to Germany, Austria and the Netherlands,” he said.
    “In Germany, we still light candles made of real wax, beeswax. They create a different mood.”
    In Germany the trees are decorated with ornaments as in America, but they also decorate the trees and the home with carved wooden figures. Many include nativity scenes, angels and other symbols.
    Along with being a traditional holiday, Christmas is also a quiet holiday in Germany, Biebrach said.
    “For the adults, it is time for themselves, to have some days off from their work and to focus on something that is not professional, whether it is family, or to reflect a little bit on what happened during the year,” he said. “Was it a good or a bad year? What will come in the next year? What challenges did the family face? And so on.”
    Biebrach said the Christian aspect to the holiday is also important for many families in Germany with a majority of Germans identifying as Christian whether they are Catholic, Protestant or Lutheran.
    “We have almost every kind of religion you will find in the globe in Germany, but it is mostly Christian,” he said.
    Christian tradition was important in his own family as well, Biebrach said.
    “Personally, for me church is important. I am Catholic, so I could not imagine celebrating Christmas without going to church,” he said.
    “What my dad always did when I was a child was always read from the Bible, (the Gospel of) Matthew, the part about the birth of Jesus. We stood around the Christmas tree, the whole family, and he read it literally from the Bible.
    “As little kids, we stood there with our hands folded and we listened and it was something special for us,” Biebrach said. “My son is 2 years old and I will definitely hand over this custom to him when he is older.”
    Biebrach said it is important to remember the true meaning of Christmas.
    Page 5 of 5 - “We should not forget that Christmas is not a shopping event. It is not plastic. There is something very serious behind it and that is the birth of Jesus,” Biebrach said. “I think it is worth it to consider that from time to time and not just look forward to presents and drinking vast amounts of alcohol. A glass of wine at Christmas is a great thing, but it is not the essence of Christmas.”
    So, when out shopping for Christmas presents or just taking a walk, take the time to talk to an international friend and ask them about their Christmas traditions. Their response may be a surprise.
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