A Christmas Story

Immigrant parents and American children. Santa slip-ups are inevitable.


Santa shouldn’t have come to my house. At least, in theory.

To my mother and father, both immigrants from Ethiopia, St. Nick was always somewhat of an anomaly, an outlandish icon of someone else’s Christmas. As children, they observed the holiday on Jan. 7, like other Orthodox Christians, in accordance with the Coptic calendar. There was no decorated tree, no winter wonderland and definitely no portly, old white man delivering presents.

“It was more about family and honoring our elders,” my mother recalls. Christmas in Ethiopia or “Genna,” as it’s called in Amharic, resembles Thanksgiving more than Christmas. It’s a time to be thankful, eat in excess and be with family. Gifts not included.

And this was the Christmas my parents brought with them to the United States. Like other immigrants, they grappled with preserving their Ethiopian culture, despite the overwhelming pressure to adopt American norms. This is a struggle at any time of year; during the seasonal head-rush of the Christmas holidays, it is an epic battle. By the time my sister and I came into the picture—bona fide, American children—they made certain allowances. Genna got lost in tinsel, and my parents jumped on the jingle-bells bandwagon to appease their children.

The transition was shaky, to say the least.

At 7 years old, I awoke one Christmas morning to learn that the jolly man had paid me a visit. Or so I was told. Hurrying down the steps to my basement, I admired the presents waiting for me under our big Christmas tree, adorned with ornaments and handmade crafts from school.

Beside the tree, taped onto the fireplace, my sister and I discovered a note. A personalized address from Santa Claus:

I hope you like your gifts! Merry Christmas! He He He!  

The jig was officially up.