On that Christmas day in 1996, I was teaching all day and missing home desperately. Schools and businesses were open and when I expressed my disappointment, my Japanese friends told me that Christmas was only “for lovers”. They had no plans beyond those of a regular Wednesday evening in Japan – a trip to the local izakaya (pub), or maybe some karaoke where Wham’s “Last Christmas” would be played again and again. I spent a lonely evening at home that year wishing I were waking up with my family and starting the day with all the traditions I remembered so fondly.
New Year’s celebrations, however, were a different story altogether! My colleagues, friends and students returned to their family homes for three days of eating, drinking, relaxing and celebrating. I was off work and was privileged to be invited to many gatherings. I learned new cultural things, tried specialty food, enjoyed hearing family stories and felt that warmth that I had been craving only a week earlier.
Holidays, especially meaningful ones, can be a very lonely time for newcomers. Even a commonly observed holiday such as Christmas may have traditions that vary greatly from country to country when it comes to food, timing and ceremony. Do we open presents on the 24th, go to midnight mass, or have food and gifts blessed at a church? Are there stockings, or shoes, or Santa at all? How do we explain the frenzy of Boxing Day sales in Canada, or the unusual tradition of mummering in Newfoundland?
In the Western world, Christmas is arguably the most celebrated of holidays. But what of Eid, Passover, or Nowruz? On the calendar, they don’t fall within our “Happy Holidays” season. Finding traditional food and places to worship or people to celebrate with can be difficult for newcomers to Canada. Being expected to work on a holiday is, as I experienced, lonely and a little frustrating. I am certain I didn’t put my best efforts in to planning those Christmas Day lessons. Even those who are well-settled in the country they are living in may experience home-sickness, or culture shock around their holiday season.
Welcoming newcomers to our community includes celebrating with them – our holidays, and theirs. One of the nicest things I experienced when living overseas was being invited to a family gathering and learning how to share in the celebrations. It is a fantastic opportunity to learn about a local culture, food and traditions. On the other hand, it is equally important to ask about how other holidays are recognized in a person’s home culture. Many of us have limited knowledge of non-western celebrations. Offering to help source traditional food items, or provide an opportunity for someone to share their culture may seem like small things, but they can go a long way to fostering the feeling of belonging to a community.
Whatever you may be celebrating this season, take a moment to consider how you might include another in your festivities. Canadians may have a lot to share, but we also have a lot to learn!
CBAL offers programs and services for newcomers to Canada. For more information on the our settlement program, click here.
Community Literacy Coordinator – Trail & Area
Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy