Mount students and staff share international holiday traditions

December 14, 2012

Newburgh, NY -

Vespers 2012

Led by music professor Durward Entrekin, the Mount Saint Mary College and St. Philips Church choirs recently performed a Christmas Vespers music program in the Aquinas Hall Theatre. They were accompanied by the Hudson Valley Chamber Players.

Lights twinkle, stores shelves are stocked, and almost 50 years after the original airing of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Linus is still ready to tell us about the birth of Jesus.

Christmas time is here, and members of the Mount Saint Mary College community, which includes students from more than 20 countries, have many ways of celebrating the holiday.

Mount soccer sensation Shanice Robe, a freshman psychology major from Jamaica, West Indies resides in Valley Stream, NY. In Jamaica, Christmas has the same religious significance as in America, she said.

However, “We don’t normally get presents,” Robe explained. “We just go out to a park and have a party.”

The celebrations include organized performance art, dancing, and singing. Robe says reggae music is often the soundtrack of choice.

December 26 is called Boxing Day. Most Jamaicans treat it as a sort of second Christmas by meeting with their extended families.

Since moving to the United States about three years ago, Robe’s family keeps their cherished Christmas traditions alive. They have also adopted some American Christmas customs. The upside, Robe said, is that she now receives Christmas gifts.

The downside: “It’s cold here, so we can’t really go outside and do anything.”

For Catholics in Venezuela, Christmas is a time of family and faith, says Mount professor Victor Azuaje, who moved to the United States in 1998.

The main Christmas meal, served at midnight on December 24, is “the most important thing,” he explained.

The meal centers around hallacas, a calzone-like “pocket” of cornmeal filled with chicken, pork or other meats, onions, bell peppers, green olives, and seasonings. Hallacas are large, so one or two could make up an entire dinner, said Azuaje.

Families exchange presents after the late meal, explained Azuaje. But instead of writing a letter to Santa Claus, children in Venezuela ask Baby Jesus for their gifts. The Nativity holds a prominent place in the home during the holiday season, but it isn’t until midnight on Christmas Eve that Baby Jesus is placed in the manger.

For about a week before December 24, early morning masses are held. At Christmas mass, attendees wear new clothes.

“It’s a very special night. You’re going to wear something new,”Azuaje explained.

Maria Modena of Stormville, NY, a business major from Brazil, said that Christmas celebrations in her home country are similar to those in America. Houses are adorned with lights and Christmas trees, though they are artificial to repel insects. Children also write letters to Santa Claus.

Things differ at the dinner table.

“We have a turkey, but we also have a lot of cold dishes because it’s summer this time of year,” Modena said.

Christmas Eve in Brazil means fruit salad, watermelon, grapes, and rice dishes with raisins and carrots. Modena added that “in Brazil we’re big consumers of beef, so we probably would have a dish of beef stew as well.”

Like in Venezuela, gifts are exchanged between family members around midnight. However, the gifts that “Santa” brings are opened in the morning.

Opeyemi Ifafore, a history-political science major from Middletown NY, spent the first eight years of her life in Lagos, Nigeria’s main city of nearly eight million people. Citizens decorate for Christmas in almost the same way as the Big Apple, with colorful lights adorning businesses and homes.

According to Ifafore, Nigerians don’t leave milk and cookies for Saint Nick, because their version of Santa – called Father Christmas – is more of an expression of good will towards men than a physical entity.

“Christmas is big on family and togetherness,” she said. “My family would go to my grandpa’s house and there would be a lot of food; not necessarily gifts.”

Ronald LawyerIfafore comes from a Christian household, but she pointed out that the many Muslims in Nigeria, including her grandparents, also use the holiday to spend time with their families.

Nursing major Ronald Lawyer of Garnerville, NY (right) comes from the town of Eremon in Ghana, Africa, where the Christian population celebrates Christmas with a church service. The holiday is very spiritual, he said.

The gift-giving and merriment Americans experience on Christmas is saved for New Year’s.

“New Year’s is the biggest,” Lawyer said, describing the holiday as a time of sharing, “whether it be money, food or drink.”

Kseniya Chunarova, a business major from Saugerties, NY, comes to the Mount from the Republic of Belarus in Eastern Europe. In Belarus, Christmas is celebrated by Catholics on December 25 and by Russian Orthodox Christians on January 7.

New Year’s garners the largest festivities for the people of Belarus. “It’s very similar to U.S. Christmas but on 31st of December,” Chunarova said. “The New Year celebration is huge. Fireworks, concerts and entertainment don't stop until sun rises.”

For New Year’s in Belarus, families gather together and exchange presents. The Russian incarnation of Santa Claus, called Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), gives presents to young children. Though American Santa does his best to remain unseen, Grandfather Frost delivers his goodies in person.

Charles Zola, professor of religion, is of Polish and Slovak heritage. Zola said that the heart of the Christmas celebration in Poland is the Christmas Eve meal, called “Wigilia,” derived from the Latin word “vigil.”

The meal doesn’t begin until after the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve, and the youngest member of the family is usually charged with looking for it. The table is spread with a white table cloth, under which is placed small pieces of straw, representing the manger.

The meal begins with the breaking of Oplatki, a flat, rectangular wafer similar to those used in church for communion.

The typical Christmas dinner in Poland consists of red borscht or mushroom soup, various types of fish such as haddock, pike, and herring, pierogis with various fillings, sauerkraut and peas, and boiled potatoes sautéed in dill butter. Dessert is an array of pastries like poppy-seed rolls, nut rolls, fruit compote, and cookies.

“Traditionally, there are 12 courses, but this can be altered according to circumstance,” said Zola.

After the meal, most families will attend midnight Mass, called the Mass of the Shepherds.

Associate professor of biology Suparna Bhalla, from India, said the Hindu tradition of Diwali (the Festival of Lights) is in some ways similar to Christmas and New Year’s. Falling between mid-October and mid-November each year, the Festival of Lights lives up to its name – fireworks fill the sky and Hindu homes are decorated with lights.

Gifts are given between families, including dried apricots, almonds, cashews, figs, and walnuts.

“It is the celebration of the triumph of good over evil,” she explained. “In Indian mythology, it is welcoming the gods back to their hometown.”

Christmas Tree 2012

Lighting the Christmas tree has been a Mount tradition for years. College president Kevin E. Mackin, OFM, (center) celebrated this season’s event with the Mount’s students.

The Mount has cherished holiday traditions of its own.

Since 1974, a choir of Mount Saint Mary College students and staff has presented the Christmas Vespers music program. This year, music professor Durward Entrekin once again directed the choir as he had done for more than two decades, and Broadway Tailors in Newburgh provided tuxedos for the 37th year in a row.

The Chapel of the Most Holy Rosary, which normally hosts the Vespers, was closed temporarily for the Dominican Center’s ongoing transformation into a 21st century library/learning commons with state-of-the-art resources and modernized residential spaces for students. Meanwhile, the Aquinas Hall Theatre stage featured a colorful backdrop for the choir this year.

In addition to an annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony which includes a blessing by campus ministry chaplain Fr. Francis Amodio, O.Carm, a large Nativity is displayed at the campus’s main entrance. The Mount also helps families in need with a Giving Tree, a collaboration between campus ministry and Arts and Letters. Tags hang like ornaments from the tree, and written on the back of each is a gift request from an underprivileged child. Mount personnel donate the requested items, creating happy holiday memories.