Embracing winter and a new home:
When Shaima Al-Mohdar came from Yemen to Ann Arbor, the Christmas tree in the home of her father and stepmother was a shock. “I was mad and offended. I told them it was okay to go to my stepmom’s grandmother’s house to celebrate, but we’re Muslims. We shouldn’t have a Christian symbol in the house.” The tree stayed that year, but didn’t come back while Shaima lived in the house.
But over the six years that she’s lived in the States, and since the birth of her 3-year-old son, Haidar, Shaima’s grown more comfortable with it. “I started to feel more cozy with Christmas. And now, I actually love it — love getting together with family, exchanging gifts, the music.”
She still doesn’t get a tree, and uses lights, still up from Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, a festival in which Muslims give charitable gifts. “Muslims respect and love Jesus, though the religious meaning is not the same as it is for Christians,” she says. As Haidar becomes older, she’ll answer any questions, but she will not make a big deal of it. “But I will be making a little bit bigger deal about celebrating and presents for Eid. Haidar just has so much fun anticipating,” she says. “I know it will be tight between all those holidays, but we’ll manage.”
She does know people who would share her encounter with that first Christmas tree. “I listen to them, but honestly, I don’t care.” Embracing the season as it’s celebrated here has helped her embrace her new homeland as well. “I think we need Christmas in cold places. It gives you something bright and cheerful to look forward to, and I love the way it brings families together. Winter wouldn’t be the same without it.”
Bringing heritage home for the holidays
A one-day holiday celebration is a big production. Multi-day celebrations like Hannukah and Kwanzaa are that multiplied by eight or seven, respectively.
Sherri and Efrion Smith of Ann Arbor don’t mind that extra work. “I grew up with Kwanzaa,” says Sherri, and she’s continued the celebration with her own children. It definitely can’t wait until the last minute. Required symbols are arranged in a particular way, including the Kwanzaa candles and unity cup. (An easy guide explaining all seven principles of Kwanzaa can be found at www.wikihow.com/Celebrate-Kwanzaa.) African decorations and African attire enhance the festivities.
It all has to be set up by the day after Christmas, when Kwanzaa begins. “The elders of the family are always present,” says Sherri, “along with extended family, friends, and anyone who wants to check it out.”
Candles are lit as each day is celebrated. The greeting, “Habari game,” Swahili for “what’s the news?”, is answered by the principle for the day. A representative activity helps make its meaning come alive. “Last year, my daughter, Niomi, who’d just turned five, sang a song for Kuumba, which means “gifts.” Our seven-year-old, Isaiah, played piano. Then we open up the floor to everyone. Our 17-year-old, Malaika [Worsham] recited a poem, and my dad and other African drummers played.”
Does all that planning interfere with Christmas? “No! We do all the traditional Christmas things: presents, church, a tree. Kwanzaa doesn’t take away a thing from your beliefs and the celebrations that go with them; it reinforces them.” And Malaika, a member of global youth service movement Generation On, heads up a family community service project each year. “The young kids follow in her footsteps,” Sherri says. “We’re blessed!” Sherri is currently working with Pioneer High School to present Kwanzaa to interested families. Email her at a2sherrismi@gmail for updates.
Christmas minus the holy spirit
When you don’t subscribe to any religion at all, do the music, visiting mall Santas, and endless holiday hype escalate beyond annoying to unbearable? “I suspect it’s not a lot different for me and my family than for most people.,” says Andy Seidl, an Ann Arbor atheist. “All of a sudden beer and auto tires and batteries are the perfect gift. That has nothing to do with the religious thing — that commercialism drives everyone nuts.”
Andy, his wife Carol, and kids Frank, 12, and twin Rita and Rose, 10, get a tree and exchange gifts. A small amount of the presents are from Santa, even though the kids haven’t believed in him in years. “It fun for all of us in the same way that, even if you don’t believe in ghosts, you can still have a blast at a spooky Halloween party.”
Raised in a large Catholic family, Andy started to have religious doubts around high school. While family members may ask questions, there’s respect, acceptance, and no pressure to believe any particular way. As for his kids, “They’re super inquisitive. They constantly question me and Carol on everything, including the two things most folks hate to talk about: politics and religion. Carol and I have never talked to the kids as if they were babies.” Charitable giving does step up for the Seidls at this time. “We support a lot of causes throughout the year, including Children International. But around the holidays, there’s a greater awareness.”
Cousins, chaos, and plenty of Christmas
Tenia and Lawrence DeWolf have had a Christmas tradition with their kids from the very beginning: each gets his or her own ornaments. L.J., a 12-year-old athlete, has a sports-themed collection; 10-year-old DeMarcus gets cartoon characters; and Lauren, who just turned 8 in November, gets girly stuff.
Then relatives started contributing as well. “At this point, Lawrence and I don’t even have our own ornaments. The kids decorate the whole tree with theirs,” says Tenia. “It’s a hodge-podge, and nothing matches, but we love it.”
That all-inclusive approach suits the DeWolfs. Tenia and her two cousins, Londa and Daron, were raised like siblings by their grandmother. “Grandma kind of was Christmas,” she says. “Every year, we would all meet at her house on Christmas Eve and eat quiche and barbecued ribs, and we’d go to church.” Once she died, her sister, JoElla (known to the kids as Yaya), worked to keep the traditions alive. Now all three families — altogether ten kids and six adults — go to Yaya’s on Christmas Eve, either before or after a church service. There, they open their gifts from her, as well as eat a potluck dinner. Special attraction: the money tree. Yaya puts different amounts of cash in different wrapped boxes, ties them to the tree, and everybody gets to try and get the
After present time, the DeWolfs go to the different family’s houses to see what everyone else got. It all ends with a big dinner: ham, mac and cheese, potato salad, and greens. “It’s not a big dessert day,” says Tenia. “That’s Thanksgiving.” At the DeWolfs, with all the fun, laughter, giving, and family time, Christmas is already sweet enough.