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Embracing diversity A look at how individuals in our communities are spending the winter holiday season

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Graphic by Razan Samara / Online Editor

How do you spend the holiday season?

Rachel Lieske: My friends refer to me as the Grinch. The older I get, the more I realize how important Christmas is to others, and how insignificant it is to me. My sister and I set up a Christmas tree every year, even though my family never exchanges presents. I would wake up early like my friends, but instead of rushing to open presents, I would watch TV. The first year of university was the first year my parents didn’t put up a tree, and the second year we only had four family members over for Christmas, this year is undecided.

Razan Samara: One of the perks of growing up as a Muslim in North America is having opportunities to partake in the seasonal festivities without necessarily feeling the pressure of the holidays or any affiliated expectations and obligations. I typically take advantage of the time off to reconnect with long-distance friends or spend quality time with family. Coincidently, my siblings’ birthdays are on Dec. 25 and 28, so there’s always a reason to gather the family and celebrate. For me, the holiday season is all about community. Last year, I spent a day with a couple friends cooking at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market. I have fond memories of chef Grant from Best on Bread teaching us how to make a delicious stack of bruschetta for a friend’s holiday party.

Steffi Arkilander: Usually, I spend the holidays with my family. Because I’m biracial, holiday gatherings are usually a mix of both sides of my family. I get to see family members I haven’t seen in a long time, and we learn about what everyone has been up to in the past year. New Year’s is special too because my Chinese side of my family values a fresh start [and] going into the new year with good intentions.

Jessica Gelbard: Most of my holiday season is spent spinning wooden toys, spending time with family and stuffing my face with jelly-filled deep fried doughnuts. In order to celebrate the miracle of a tiny drop of oil lasting eight nights, I get pretty lit. And by getting lit, I mean I light a candle for each night of [Hanukkah] amassing a fully lit menorah by the last night!

Trisha Gregorio: I don’t have any particular holiday season staples or routines. My family consists of my mother, my younger brother and myself, and we spend Christmas quietly without exchanging gifts or holding Christmas parties at home. I find that in the lack of any concrete traditions Christmas feels lacklustre relative to the whirlwind of the days preceding it. Instead, I enjoy the lead-up to the week of Christmas — the hustle and bustle at stores, the neverending Christmas carols, the holiday drinks — more than I do Christmas Day itself, so a lot of the holiday season is spent basking in that Christmas atmosphere.

 

What parts of your identity or culture influence your holiday traditions?

Rachel Lieske: Neither of my parents has strong familial ties with their immediate family, and neither do I. Inherently, I don’t have that strong nostalgia that lets the holiday tradition live on for kids my age, despite our impending adolescence.

Razan Samara: One of my religious holidays includes Ramadan — a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, reflection and prayer. Sometimes I miss a few days of fasting during Ramadan and I like to make them up during the winter holiday season. I typically have more time to focus on my spirituality and wellbeing, which is important when it comes to facing the winter blues. The days are also much shorter and fasting becomes easier. I especially enjoy it when I get to break my fast alongside friends celebrating their own holidays and traditions over dinners — there’s a collision of diversity that’s incredibly empowering. Since Islamic holidays are observed on a lunar calendar, then every 30 years or so Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr (festival of breaking fast) end up coinciding with other winter holidays. I can’t wait to shop for Eid gifts during Boxing Day in 2033.

Steffi Arkilander: I often get together with the two sides of my family — my white side and my Chinese side. We usually have two dinners for each side of my family, whether it’s for Christmas or New Year’s. One dinner is definitely considered more “traditional” to Western culture, where we all eat together, but my Chinese side often holds a hotpot or some form of Chinese food. We usually have a prayer in both English and Chinese. As gifts, red pockets with lucky money are often given from the elders of our family to the younger ones to celebrate Christmas or going into a new year. My family also usually cleans on New Year’s Day as it represents a “fresh start”.

Jessica Gelbard: Most of what influences my holiday traditions comes from my Jewish identity and European culture. For example, the holiday of Hanukkah itself, emanates from the story of the Maccabean revolt, in which the Jews defeated their Syrian-Greek oppressors in 160 BCE. So that comes from my Jewish identity. On the food side of things however, potato latkes, generally associated with Hanukkah, come from my European culture!

Trisha Gregorio: I grew up in the Philippines, where the Christmas season lasts from September to early January. While very little of the customs I had then remain with me [now], habits from childhood still inform my expectations for the holidays (that instinctive anticipation is probably why I like the pre-Christmas season so much). Christmas in the Philippines was also heavily religious, marked by week-long dawn vigils and multiple masses per day, and while my relationship with religion has only gotten more complicated the more I’ve come to terms with my identity, Christmas Mass is the one holiday tradition that my culture will always anchor me to.

 

How do ideas around a “traditional holiday experience” influence your traditions?

Rachel Lieske: Not being absorbed in the “traditional holiday experience” has given me a lot of anxiety about going home for the holidays. Motivated by FOMO [i.e. fear of missing out] and worry surrounding how I will spend such a long time in a town that doesn’t feel like home is daunting.

Razan Samara: My ideas around a “traditional holiday experience” come from watching the Home Alone franchise and feel-good Hallmark films. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how representation of the holidays in the media are almost always monopolized by Christmas and White American culture, so it’s no surprise that my own traditions tend to fit into this “picture-perfect” representation of Christmas. I walked by the Santa Claus parade in Hamilton and Toronto last week, listened to Christmas carols while cooking dinner with a friend a couple nights ago, and I have plans to check out the Toronto Christmas Market for the first time. While I do enjoy my cup of eggnog, I’m hoping to learn more about other holiday traditions this year.

Steffi Arkilander: I think that traditional holiday experiences can come in forms we may not necessarily consider traditional. Although my experience with the holidays may seem unique and different, it’s always been my normal to celebrate the holidays twice and to embrace both sides of my identity as not separate, but whole. Maybe my celebration of the holidays isn’t Western, but it doesn’t mean it’s not traditional. This is a tradition in my family and a tradition within many Chinese and even biracial communities. Although my celebrations may not be the majority, it doesn’t mean they aren’t any less meaningful.

Jessica Gelbard: I’ve notice in recent years, that in order to partake in “mainstream holiday seasons,” many Jewish people have taken to the idea of a “Hanukkah Bush” to replace a “Christmas Tree.” While the idea is cute, I think it adds to the unfortunate reality of assimilation. I too however, partake in events such as Christmas markets, and listening to Christmas music (obsessively I may add!) to feel apart of what society has deemed a “traditional holiday experience.”

Trisha Gregorio: The “traditional holiday experience” presents this ideal where all is cheerful and light-hearted during the holidays. As heartwarming as that can be, I also think it places a particular burden on those of us who don’t have access to the picture-perfect scene that Christmas ads present. For some, the holiday season may have its complications, whether it might be seasonal depression, or someone having to be around homophobic relatives, or simply having to spend Christmas alone. Not everyone has what counts for a warm, “complete” family, either, nor has the financial means to afford a big dinner. It isn’t so much that traditions are affected by this ideal; more than anything, it’s that this expectation of existing traditions isolates those who don’t have any.

 

What’s one takeaway you want readers to walk away with?

Rachel Lieske: Not having strong holiday traditions can be isolating at times. Just know that many people are on the same page as you, those who may have distant family relationships that don’t call for celebrating. This holiday I’m taking advantage of my free time and expending my energy on what’s important to me, and that’s okay.

Razan Samara: The holidays can be overwhelming. Whether you’re facing challenges, or your life seems to have been taken over by festive stress, it’s important to recognize when you need to take a break and focus on your own wellbeing. In the past, I’ve definitely been caught up in all the great expectations of the holiday season while also feeling quite lonely when I don’t see my own cultures and identities well represented. Whether you want to celebrate or not, I encourage you to seek out meaningful connections with your communities — it’s made a world of difference for me.

Steffi Arkilander: Biracial communities often have mixed celebrations and traditions that have shaped how we’ve grown up. I am not just 50 per cent Chinese and 50 per cent white. I am 100 per cent mixed and that is a different experience altogether. My culture can be seen through my meals, holidays and languages (or lack thereof) and they help shape my identity and who I’ve come to be today.

Jessica Gelbard: While the holiday season is often portrayed with a heavy focus on Christmas and the mainstream idea of Christmas, it’s important for us to have pride and joy in our own cultural and religious holidays at this time of year! We should be sharing our holiday joy and knowledge with others as well, so they too can join in the recognition and celebration of our respective holidays. Celebrate your holiday with pride, and reflect on your family’s history as these holidays have been celebrated over the generations before you.

Trisha Gregorio: Don’t get me wrong: Christmas is my favourite part of the year! I think that even at its most simple, the holidays can be a quiet, lovely period to take a break from life. However, while it’s important to channel the Christmas spirit, it’s also worth keeping in mind those who might not be spending Christmas like you are. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to be happy — you are, and despite everything, I encourage liveliness during the holidays whenever possible. It’s simply that one aspect of Christmas means extending that helping hand, so if you know someone who might be spending Christmas alone, or someone who will be going through a tough time attending family parties, it won’t hurt to send a message or two.

 

 

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