Every refugee who comes to America must come to grips with it sooner or later. After they fill out the paperwork, find housing, cope with the language barrier and search for a job, they have to face maybe the most perplexing challenge of them all: Christmas, American style.
Nothing is more revealing than a couple of interviews in the movie “God Grew Tired of Us,” the documentary about the Lost Boys of Sudan. At one point, as one of the young men watches Santa Claus on TV, he turns to the camera and says: “Would you mind to explain a bit what is Santa mean and why do you set up a Christmas tree? Yes, a bit beautiful, but what’s the meaning? That’s what we are asking to any American to tell us: What’s the meaning of this? Is it in the Bible?”
Later, the cameras follow them through a mall when they marvel at the sight of a large Christmas tree and then see the man himself. “It’s Santa Claus,” one of them says, and then, turning to their host, one asks: “And how does it connect with the birth of Jesus Christ? I think many of us have so many questions to ask, but I think we have few people to answer them.”
The residents of Salt Lake’s South Parc apartment complex — who are mostly refugees from Africa and Asia — also have been swept up to varying degrees by America’s frenetic, over-the-top, shop-till-you-drop version of Christmas, which has all the peace on earth of a runaway train. They adapt and adopt, and you can decide if that’s a good thing.
“We didn’t know what Santa is,” says Jackie, a teen who came here with her parents and six siblings from Congo three years ago. “We saw (Santa) in a movie and in Wal-Mart. For kids, it makes them happy.”
In Congo, Christmas is a simpler affair. Families aren't rushing off in different directions to shop for days at a time in the buildup to the holiday. At Christmas, they gather as a family. They eat a big dinner together. They might buy clothes for Christmas. They might give a few small gifts to the children, or not.
After a Sub-for-Santa program had swept through the apartments, Christine, Jackie’s mother, says: “In Africa, there’s no money to buy anything. There are people living outside who don’t have food and clothing. I would buy food and clothes for the kids. No one comes to the house and gives gifts like they do here."
In America, Christine’s family has jobs and a roof over their heads and food in the refrigerator — and a stack of presents in the corner of the family room. Ask her what it's all about, she says simply, “We know it’s about the birth of Jesus.”
Out in the parking lot, Domoina Voniarisoa is sitting in her car after a day of performing her duties as program coordinator for refugees in South Salt Lake. Domoina, whose name means "dove," came to the U.S. from Madagascar a decade ago, earned degrees from BYU and Utah, served a mission for the LDS Church, and settled here.
She is asked if she knew about Santa when she arrived. “Yes, I grew up with that pagan belief,” she says, smiling. In her homeland, they have Christmas trees and Santa (albeit, a thinner one), but the American version of the holiday still caught her off guard.
“I was shocked by the amount of gifts,” she says. “It’s a big thing here. Ten years later it still shocks me. This is like a big symbol here of living in a rich country. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
In Madagascar they might exchange one present with family members — or none at all. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t give a present or don’t get anything,” she says. “We’re not looking for anything." It is mostly a family time. They have meals together. They might receive new shoes or new clothes, but no more, and maybe less.
Remembering the Christmases of her youth, she says, “It is not associated with what it is here — the traffic, the shoppers, the busy stores.”
In the passenger seat of her car is a small stack of presents. When this is pointed out to her, she smiles and says: “I feel obligated to do it here. I’m going to deliver gifts for friends.”
Rosette and her four children share an apartment down the road. Devout Christians, they read the Bible and pray daily. They have been here 10 months and are preparing for their first Christmas in America.
When Rosette is asked about Santa Claus, she shows no sign of recognition. Her son Dieudone tries to help. “Pere Noel,” he says to her — Father Christmas. When this doesn’t work, he mimes an imaginary beard and that does it. She says through a French interpreter that she saw Santa and Christmas decorations on TV.
“I like Noel in America,” she says in English. “Now I can see it. I like, like, like.”
Dieudone learned about Santa through magazine photos in Congo. His sister loves Pere Noel "with his red hat and the beard like Abraham.” Their Christmas was much like their countrywoman Christine’s. They gather as a family, they eat together, don colorful outfits, sing and dance, and go to church. Christmas trees are for the wealthy.
“Here is good,” Rosette says. “I see the decorations. I open the door and there are people bringing gifts. They don’t do this in Africa.”
When she is asked if it’s difficult to come to America, she speaks French again to the interpreter, Kendrick LaFleur, who served this neighborhood as a bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "It’s not easy for those who don’t believe in God," she says. "God gave me America. Me happy, happy. I have faith God will protect me and guide me and open doors. I have hope.”
Ask her what Christmas is, she doesn’t miss a beat, telling the translator, “God is love. He loves us so much he gave his son. We celebrate the birth of his son.”
This recalls one more revealing moment from “God Grew Tired of Us,” in which a Sudanese refugee observes: “You have so many things to use to celebrate the Christmas. What we have in Africa is also good, but ours is mainly celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ is going to be born in our heart. So we prepare ourselves spiritually.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org