Culture & Entertainment

How Canada’s newcomers can navigate Christmas

How Canada’s newcomers can navigate Christmas

Culture & Entertainment

How Canada’s newcomers can navigate Christmas

Dalal Al-Waheidi shares the importance of preserving and sharing old holiday traditions while experiencing and welcoming new ones.

I remember the holidays growing up in Gaza. The Christian community was small, but visible. My family lived across the street from the YMCA, where every year the neighbourhood gathered for a party with Santa Claus, as Christian and Muslim children sang carols together.

I think about those celebrations, and I think about the Christmases I had as a university student in Norway, which I spent with friends from Swaziland, Zambia and Vietnam at our host families’ homes. Newcomers to this country bring cultural luggage and traditions to weave into their new Canadian identity. These are some of the holiday memories I carried with me.

My family left Kuwait for Gaza when I was young. I left Gaza for school in Norway when I was a teenager. And then, nearly 20 years ago, I came to Canada and started my own family. With each move, new traditions layered on the old, as I shared the holidays with new friends and neighbours and in turn, invited them to explore my celebrations.

I’ve been a traveller in many cultures.

For immigrants like me, the holidays can be a painful reminder of home and families left behind. But, they’re also a chance to share cultures and create space for mutual understanding, marrying new traditions with old to forge a new identity from the two.  

Although Christmas was always a time to gather with loved ones, Ramadan was the major holiday of my childhood—the time of family, fasting and feasts, and festive paper lanterns and crescent moons. More than my childhood Christmas celebrations, this time of year always makes me yearn for Ramadan with my family.

 

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Ramadan in Gaza was like a Christmas dinner every night at iftar, the evening meal to break the fast. Friends and neighbours would stop by to share sweets made especially for the occasion, often talking until dawn over the TV that played holiday specials like the Fawazir Ramadan (The Riddles of Ramadan), a musical. Every morning at dawn, we’d be greeted by the misaharati—traditional drummers and singers who’d wake us for the morning meal. My mom would buy me a new outfit for Eid al-Fitr, the feast marking the end of Ramadan, and would lay these new clothes out on the couch for me to find in the morning.

Now when I celebrate Ramadan, there are no neighbours staying into the early hours and no drummers marking the occasion. Still, I’ve found ways to make my family traditions part of my life in my new home. I do simple things like teaching my daughter the importance of zakat, or charity, during Ramadan. I share our iftar with special gatherings and bring dates, the food Muslims traditionally use to break the fast, to the office to share with coworkers. They return the favour with Christmas cookies or potato latkes for Chanukah.

Despite the tug of family and memories, I’ve found pieces of home in the Christmas holidays and have come to love the new traditions I’m building with my husband and daughter. For newcomers to this country: Say yes to new experiences and be open to creating new traditions. Your children will be exposed to them in school, see them at the mall and learn about them through friends—but as a family, you have a chance to make them your own.

This holiday season, I’ll be thinking about the 35,000 Syrian refugees who came to Canada in the past year and find themselves immersed in a new culture, perhaps a new celebration. I’ll be thinking about how they’ll experience their first holiday season in Canada and will add another layer to their traditions, much like I did.

I’ve eaten Christmas dinner, taken in the fireworks of Diwali, joined in the songs of Chanukah and shared the beauty of Ramadan.  Each experience has helped me add to my own family’s rich traditions so that my daughter, my husband and I find pieces of home in all of the holidays.

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How Canada’s newcomers can navigate Christmas

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