Exchange students celebrate an American Christmas

December 23, 2013
Foreign students at Canon-McMillan High School get ready for their first Christmas in the United States. They are here for the 2013-14 school year and are staying with host families. From left are Sofya Sarkisova, 17, of Mary, Turkmenistan; Cecilia Laposchan, 16, of Schlangen, Germany; Arja Slaatten, 17, of Ski, Norway; and Glasha Stekolva, 16, of Moscow, Russia. - Robin Richards / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Pretty lights, Santa and his elves, and loads of presents are nothing new to four Canon-McMillan foreign exchange students. Thanks to American movies, the students had some idea what to expect while celebrating their first Christmas in the states.

But as they prepared to sit down to Christmas Eve dinner with their host families, they couldn’t help but notice the stark differences – and similarities – between their traditional customs and ours.

With their hometowns scattered across Europe and Asia, Arja Slaatten, Glasha Stekolva, Sofya Sarkisova and Cecilia Laposchan were intrigued by what they experienced thus far. The nonstop preparation, baking and the exchange of Christmas cards took the girls, from Norway, Russia, Turkmenistan and Germany, respectively, by surprise since they said Christmas just isn’t really a big deal where they’re from.

“Our Christmases are pretty much the same,” Slaatten, a senior, said. “But it’s not a big deal. New Year’s is the bigger deal.”

“Most people don’t pay attention to Christmas,” Stekolva, a junior, said. “My family does. We go to church at midnight and have dinner.”

While their families gather to decorate their trees and homes, there is less emphasis on the jolly red-clad man and more on the meaning behind the celebration.

“All the stores are closed after Christmas,” Laposchan, a junior, said. “It’s a time to relax. It’s a time to be with family.”

In Turkmenistan, Sarkisova said the majority of people are Muslim, and the Christmas holiday is celebrated by only a few.

“I’m Armenian, so we celebrate Christmas, but it is not a national holiday,” the senior said. “Our big holiday is New Year’s. It’s like Christmas here.”

Elves, stockings, the big man’s sleigh and the North Pole also are out. The girls said their version of Santa travels alone or with a granddaughter or snow maiden figure.

“She helps him deliver the packages,” Sarkisova said.

Once Christmas has passed, the girls said they start gearing up for the bigger celebration.

“We don’t call them Christmas trees,” Stekolva said. “We call them New Year’s trees. And we don’t start decorating months in advance. Maybe two weeks before. There are so many lights here. People start decorating so early.”

Like our New Year’s pork and sauerkraut, the girls said there’s a variety of foods that are important or customary to serve in their countries when welcoming the New Year.

In Russia, Stekolva said it’s not New Year’s without Russian salad, a mixture of sausage, potatoes, green beans, dressing, eggs and onions. As a part of all the girls’ customs, meat and fish are big parts of their dinners. Sweets are limited.

“We have them, but they are a bigger deal here,” Laposchan said.

While they are sure to miss their families this holiday season, the girls said they are looking forward to teaching their host families about their customs. Stekolva said her host family will celebrate Russian Christmas with her Jan. 7. Slaatten said she looks forward to cooking a traditional Norway Christmas meal, once she receives the goodies from back home.

To help ease they uneasiness of being away, if there is any, Rosa Few, who is hosting Laposchan, has planned a way for both families to be together this evening.

“Cecilia is very excited to experience Christmas here,” Few, of Canonsburg, said. “But she wanted to see her family. So we are going to Skype during our celebrations. It will be the best of both worlds. She will get to see everyone.”

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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