A Christmas Story

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

Santa clearly had a ghostwriter and all signs pointed to my mother, the Christmas neophyte. In her well-intentioned hands, Santa’s trademark guffaw was reduced to a school girl’s giggle.

I wasn’t particularly heartbroken, though. The kid who saw his mother kissing Santawas probably more devastated. I already had my doubts. The narrowness of our chimney notwithstanding, the whole idea of one man distributing presents to every child in the world just didn’t seem feasible to me. Going along with the charade got me a Casio keyboard, though, so who the hell cared?

For me, the effort taken to impersonate Santa meant more than the man himself—and even the Casio keyboard—but, sadly I had no Ethio-equivalent to replace him. If only Genna festivities consisted of the same kind of fleeting holiday fairy tales. Abesha elves, perhaps? Or, maybe, an East African Pole where gifts are made? Not quite.

Despite the bumps in the road, allowing us to participate in mainstream Christmas culture was my parents’ attempt at making sure we felt included; it allowed my sister and me to have a response to the ever-popular post-holiday query: “So, what’d you get for Christmas?”

“I just didn’t want you to feel left out.” my mother now confesses. That is the rationale many parents employ during the holidays, especially those for which the commercial aspect of Christmas is quite foreign. But one result is that American holiday customs are often practiced through the filter of an outside lens, and Santa slip-ups are almost inevitable.

But not everyone is as willing as my parents were to keep up with the Clauses. Golnaz Alemousavi, a friend born in Iran, struggled to bridge the holiday gaps that her Muslim family was unwilling to fill. “My efforts to celebrate commercialized Christmas were pitiful! Since my family wouldn’t buy a Christmas tree,” she says, “I would find the biggest plant in our house and tie toys on it. And I didn’t receive presents, so when I got Christmas cards from my classmates and teachers I put them under the ‘tree.'”

Thankfully, my family was a bit more compromising. But after the giggling Santa incident, my mother began weaning us off American customs. About a year later, she decided that my sister and I were old enough to grasp the real meaning of the holiday. We began celebrating Genna, but a few concessions were made to ease the process. One Christmas gift could be opened on Dec. 25, but all others were left unopened until Jan. 7. Eventually, the gift exchange came to a complete standstill. Though, for some reason, we still hang a wreath up on our door.

At school, there remained a constant stream of contradictions: Bright, colorful lights decking the hallways of my elementary school. Holiday-themed, class projects for which glitter became synonymous with glee. And, of course, there were the Christmas carols at school assemblies:

Who’s got a big red cherry nose?
Santa’s got a big red cherry nose.

Who laughs this way:
Santa laughs this way: