A Christmas Story
Immigrant parents and American children. Santa slip-ups are inevitable.
To my mother and father, both immigrants from Ethiopia, St. Nick was an outlandish icon of someone else's Christmas. By the time my sister and I came into the picture—bona fide, American children—they made certain allowances. My parents jumped on the jingle-bells bandwagon to appease their children, but Santa slipups were almost 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.
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:
HO HO HO?
Santa laughs this way:
HO HO HO!
Must be Santa must be Santa,
Must be Santa, Santa Claus.
I knew the truth and so did every teacher leading the chorus. "Ya'll know that fool is fake!" I thought quietly to myself. But rather than be the jaded 8-year-old with foreign sensibilities, I sang along dutifully. And when friends asked the inevitable question: "What did Santa bring you?" my reply was simple: He hasn't come yet.
Saaret E. Yoseph is a writer living in Washington D.C and editorial assistant for The Root.