Celebrating the Holiday Season with AU Students

Late October to early January is a time for celebration for many AU students, including those who celebrate Diwali, Mawlid, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Eastern Orthodox/Eastern Rite Christmas, Coptic Orthodox Christmas, and El Día de Los Reyes Magos.  The Voice Magazine recently had a chance to chat with several students about their family traditions.

  • Diwali – Diwali is a Hindu, Sikh, and Jain celebration, which often falls in late October to November and lasts for five days. Derived from the Sanskrit word deepavali, meaning “rows of lighted lamps,” the celebration has different meanings for its religious communities, but “all celebrate the triumph of righteousness, often represented by light.”

Raj Kler from Calgary is currently in his last year of the Bachelor of Professional Arts in Criminal Justice.  He explained that “[t]his festival is celebrated in the loving memory of Guru Hargobind Ji who was freed from imprisonment along with 52 kings due to which this day is also called Bandi Chhorh Divas.”  He continued, “Several days before this special day, people start cleaning their houses and business places.  Celebrations for this festival are held at temples and Gurudwara (Sikh temples).  People celebrate this by firing crackers, decorating their homes with colourful lights, and preparing different kinds of foods.  On this day, neighbours and loved ones exchange sweets with each other.”

Raj remembers Diwali yearly with family and friends in India.  He stated, “We would go to market and buy crackers and start firing crackers around 9 pm and I’d go till 1-2 am in the morning.  It was a great fun.”  As for his favourite Diwali meal, Raj chose “yellow coloured sweet rice with homemade yogurt.”

Aman Sahi from Airdrie, Alberta is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.  When asked about a typical Diwali day, Aman stated that it entails “getting up early in the morning to start preparing for the evening, going to friends and family house to give gifts and sweets, and also receiving lots of gifts and sweets, kids start cracking fireworks in the morning.”  There is also “going to the temple to light the first Diya and then coming home to start laxmi Pooja and lighting diyas.  Lots and lots of firecrackers and food.”

Aman continued, “My favourite memories of Diwali included helping my mother prepare sweets and snacks for the evening in advance.  Giving lots of dry fruits boxes and gifts to friends and family.  Lighting up the home with sparkling diyas and making rangoli near the front door.  The sounds of firecrackers, laughing children, colorful lights would fill the air after sunset during Diwali.”  As for the holiday meal?  “Everything my mother cooks is my favorite but if I have to pick it is poori chane and gajar ka halwa.”

  • Mawlid – Mawlid, or Mawlid al-Nabī, celebrates the birth of the Prophet Mohammed in Islam. This year, the date fell on October 28 or twelfth day of the month of Rabīʿ al-Awwal by the lunar calendar.   On this day, Muslims gather at mosque, as well as listening to public speeches about the life and teachings of the Prophet.
  • Hanukkah – Also known as the Feast of Dedication, Festival of Lights, or Feast of the Maccabees, Hanukkah begins this year on Friday, December 11 to Friday, December 18 and lasts for eight days. In particular, the celebration “reaffirms the ideals of Judaism and commemorates in particular the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem by the lighting of candles on each day of the festival.”
  • Kwanzaa – Celebrated from December 26 to January 1, Kwanzaa “honors African heritage and celebrates family, community and culture.” Taken from the Swahili phrase, matunda ya kwanza, or first fruits, Kwanzaa was created during the 1960s in the United Stated by Maulana Karenga, to commemorate the stripped ethnic history of Black Americans.  Seven principles known collectively as Nguzo Saba are celebrated, with one principle each day, including Unity, Self-Determination, Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith.
  • La Befana – Throughout Italy on January 5, the eve of the Epiphany, children await a benevolent old woman, who leaves gifts for those who have been well-behaved.

Hannah Covassi, a Bachelor of General Studies, stated, “Sometimes I’d celebrate at home and other times I’d visit my Nonna with my cousins.  The morning would start out with either my Nonna or mom telling me the story of the Befana kind of like how parents and grandparents tell their kids about Santa Claus.”  She continued, “[T]hen they’d say that they saw her through the window on her broom the night before and left us gifts but we’d have to find them.  So we’d go around the house looking for the gifts (they were usually hidden in a closet) and then open them.  Afterward the hunt we’d have pandoro (Italian sweet bread) and talk about the Befana.  My favourite memory was the 1 year that my mom fooled me by hiding the gift in a fake block of coal.  Now as an adult my mom and I either hide each other’s gifts or play a guessing game about what gifts we got each other, then eat pandoro.  I’ll also call my Nonna or visit her to wish her a happy La Befana like other families wish each other Merry Christmas but the gift hunt is mostly for children.”

  • El Día de Los Reyes Magos – Also known as Three Kings Day or the Epiphany, El Día de Los Reyes Magos takes place on January 6. Believed to be the day when the three kings gave gifts to baby Jesus, it is celebrated throughout Latin America, as well as Spain.  In Mexico, one of the most important aspects of the day is eating the Rosca de Reyes, or the “Wreath of the Kings,” an oval shaped cake.  Whoever finds a hidden figurine of Jesus must make tamales for the family on February 2 or El Día de la Candelaria.
  • Coptic Orthodox Christmas – Celebrated by communities from Ethiopia and Egypt, the celebration falls on January 7, based on the Julian calendar.
  • Eastern Orthodox/Eastern Rite Christmas – Similarly, this celebration also follows the Julian calendar, often taking place on January 6 and 7 throughout Ukraine, Russia, Montenegro, Serbia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova.

Milica Markovic, a Master of Arts – Interdisciplinary Studies (MA-IS) student from Toronto stated, “My family isn’t religious (I’m agnostic, and my parents are atheists), but we still do enjoy heading to the church to enjoy bean stew with other people, listen to the choir, light candles for the living and deceased, and take a badnjak [a branch from a yule log] for the drive home.  There’s just something so peaceful about the atmosphere, and I love that it brings people together regardless of faith.  I don’t think there’s anything weird with wanting to stay connected to your culture because there are still some great values/character-building moments to be retained from that.”

She continued, “I actually really enjoyed bringing non-Orthodox friends to church and showing them our customs (although there are some differences between how Montenegrins and Serbians do things so it can be a learning opportunity for us too!).  I’m a very curious person myself who likes to learn and embrace other cultures so I would want someone to do the same for me.”  As for her favourite food, she stated, “Russian salad all the way!  I love making it, goes with anything really.”

Marija Milenkovic-Delorey a Bachelor of Professional Arts in Communications Studies, from Thorold, Ontario stated, “We celebrate Christmas on January 6 and 7, with Christmas Eve being Jan 6 and Christmas Day on the 7.  In the evening of the 6, we attend a church service and collect the badnjak (a tree branch that is kept in the home for the year and is supposed to bring good health, luck, etc.  to the household) then go to my aunt’s house for a supper consisting of fish, baked beans, and other vegetables.  Dessert is fresh and dried fruit, and there is no meat or alcohol at this meal.  Christmas day starts with opening gifts and stockings, and having breakfast, and then we have a big family dinner consisting of chicken soup, cabbage rolls (sarma), potatoes, assorted vegetables, and salad.  Sometimes we will also have turkey or ham, with stuffing, mashed potatoes, etc.  Dessert is the traditional cesnica, which is a dish similar to baklava, and has a coin baked into the layers.  The dessert is cut into squares, and everyone chooses a square to eat.  The person who finds the coin is expected to have good luck in the coming year.  We also usually have quite a lot of other cookies, squares, and cake.  We’re a family of bakers who never seem to have enough dessert!  After dessert, we open the remaining gifts with our extended family, and usually have Turkish coffee and just chat and enjoy each other’s company.

She continued, “My favourite Christmas memories are from Christmas Eve, when we gather for our cozy family supper.  I love my aunt’s house, it is so beautiful and welcoming and she always has the best Christmas decorations.  Back at home, placing all of the gifts under the tree once our daughter goes to bed is also magical, and I love the anticipation of waiting for Christmas morning.  It’s just such a warm, cozy, and comforting time to spend with loved ones.”

As for her favourite holiday meal, Marija chose cabbage rolls.  “We only typically have them at Christmas, so it’s a special treat, and it reminds me of my childhood Christmases in Serbia.  I also love all of the cookies and desserts.”

  • Eastern Orthodox Christmas is also celebrated in Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, however, following the Gregorian calendar.

Roxana Popescu, a “non-program student enrolled in some courses that are prerequisites for nursing school” from Bucharest, Romania stated, “My family enjoys Eastern Orthodox Christmas, celebrating Jesus Christ’s birth on the 25, 26, and 27 of December, unlike our neighbours from Ukraine or, moving further, Russia that celebrate according to the old calendar on the 7 of January.”  She continued, “We start by fasting 6 weeks before Christmas to prepare to celebrate Jesus Christ while avoiding meat and dairy products and focusing on doing good deeds.  This fasting is a way of remembering Moses’ 40 days of fasting, in which, in the end, he received the Ten Commandments from God.”

When asked to describe a typical celebration, she stated, “A few days before Christmas, we go Christmas tree shopping, and we decorate it at home with the whole family.  I remember it was always a time to fight with my sister over every decoration’s place in the tree.  Still, in the end, we always reconciled listening to Christmas carols songs in our living room, sitting and enjoying the dark room lit only by the Christmas tree lights that used to have a very ‘dancing’ pattern of lights.”  She continued, “On Christmas Eve, we all cook different tasty meals, such as sausages, Christmas pudding, aspic, Romanian beef salad, and Christmas sweetbread.  My grandmother has a brick oven where she bakes sweet bread; it tastes divine every time she does it.”

In addition, “On the first day of Christmas, we call our loved ones, wish them ‘Merry Christmas,’ visit our relatives, and enjoy the time spent together.  When I was a child, we went carolling on the morning of the 25 of December and enjoyed the cookies, apples, oranges, and bagels we received, but not before opening the gifts Santa Clause put under the Christmas tree.  However, 2020 Christmas will be different, spent isolated at home to contain the spread of coronavirus.  On a typical Christmas day, we all gather around at lunch and eat what we cooked the previous days.  Furthermore, all Christmas days are spent relaxing with family and visiting our grandparents and other close family members as we all have days off from school or work.”

When asked about her favourite memories, she stated, “I remember the days fondly when it snowed, and I went carolling with my friends around the neighbourhood, then the joyous moments of gift unwrapping, the paper-tearing sounds still making me giddy as an adult, and the moments we ate too many candies and cookies.  I think that those moments spent in cold weather, exhaling foggy breath, trick-or-treating with my friends while it snowed made me prefer winter and move to Canada to enjoy more days of snow.”

As for her favourite holiday meal, Roxana revealed, “The beef salad and Romanian Christmas sweet bread to satisfy my sweet tooth are my favourite holiday meal.  Moreover, all the edible presents Santa Claus brought as a kid were a meal of their own.  There was even a competition that consisted of who finishes their candies first between my sister and me.  One of the perks of Christmas, besides family time, is the tasty food we all cook.”

From your friends at The Voice Magazine, we wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season!