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COL Season rekindles memories

When Louisa Chavez of Rochester talks about Christmas in her native Guatemala her eyes tear up.

"On Dec. 24, my father always put up the Christmas tree," she said, her voice faltering. "Excuse me. He passed away two years ago."

She composes herself and continues. "He spent the whole day putting it up and decorating it, getting it just right. It was his job."

Louisa, speaking during the Rochester International Association's holiday luncheon this week, described other Christmas season traditions in her homeland. She told the audience about how for nine days children bring Mary and Joseph dolls from house to house searching out a place for them to stay. And she told about how people celebrate the birth of Jesus by setting off fireworks.

She was one of several people who volunteered to talk about their holiday traditions.

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Holiday festivities

Victoria Breslavskaya talked about Grandfather Frost, a kind old gentleman with a long beard and a child at his side, who comes around on New Years in her native Ukraine. Christmas there, she said, is celebrated Jan. 7, when 12 dishes are served -- one for each month of the year.

"Festivities don't start until midnight," Victoria said. "Then we eat, open presents and, at about 2, we go somewhere and dance. We don't get home until about 6 in the morning."

Herta Matteson, who grew up in Germany, explained that St. Nicholas, in her native country, is a holiday figure who asks children if they have been naughty or nice. But it is the baby Jesus, children are told, who is responsible for the gifts they receive -- not the old man in the beard who is dressed like a bishop.

The Christmas tree does not go up until Dec. 24, which also is when the Christ Child delivers presents. At midnight, most people go to church. Stores in Germany are closed for three days, beginning Christmas Eve.

"I like being in Germany for Christmas because it is so quiet," Herta said. "I miss it. I even miss the smell of Christmas in Germany."

Turkey time

Blanca Pineda told her friends how some people in her native Panama raise their own Christmas turkeys.

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"On Dec. 23, you get it drunk on Port wine, and when he becomes relaxed, well, you know."

In the country of Blanca's birth, people feast on roast turkey or suckling pig stuffed with sausage, olives and raisins, and egg nog made with rum.

In Panama, Blanca said, Christmas trees all come down on the same day, Jan. 6. The trees are gathered together on the beach and torched, creating spectacular bonfires.

Festival of lights

Phyllis Goldman offered a history lesson on the Jewish celebration of Hannukah -- the festival of lights. She explained that the holiday lasts for eight days, to signify the length of time a one-day supply of olive oil kept burning during a temple rededication in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

"It's more of a holiday than it is a holy day," Phyllis said. "It means festival of lights. It signifies that it's always better to light a light than curse the darkness."

As a result of my Dec. 2 column on the Christmas/holiday season, I am still hearing from people who believe that we are too inclusive and politically correct where Christmas is concerned.

One reader went so far as to say she was offended that I described Santa as a "rotund man in a red suit" instead of calling him by his real name. "Santa, as you very well know, is part of the American tradition of celebrating Christmas season," she wrote. "Either you stand proud for true American traditions and beliefs or spare us columns about other nationalities' celebrations and beliefs inside the United States!"

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With all due respect, Santa Claus is not an American invention. Nor is the Christmas tree, gift giving, turkey feasts or midnight Christmas Eve church services.

I appreciate her patriotism. But to her and others who so rigidly guard their American-only Christmas traditions, I ask this question: Where did you get your traditions?

At what point in the history of this nation, composed mostly of immigrants and descendants of immigrants, did we decide to throw away the welcome mat?

Greg Sellnow's columns appear Tuesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at 285-7703 or by e-mail at sellnow@postbulletin.com.

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