International Illini talk holiday traditions, customs

By Elizabeth Dye

With the holidays, come the holiday traditions. But for many international students, holiday traditions have taken on new meanings in America.

Many of these students, who come from drastically different cultural backgrounds, have found themselves sharing in the holiday spirit and celebrating the holidays just as Americans do. On the other hand, other international students have kept their own country’s traditions alive.

Elizabeth Gardner, a junior who studies American studies, is spending her first college year at the University from Britain as a part of her study abroad program.

Gardner, having spent her first fall break in the U.S., experienced her first Thanksgiving this year with friends she met at the University.

“Thanksgiving was really fun. It was nice to have a whole week off because we don’t have that at home,” she said. “It was a nice time of year to spend time with your families here. It was nice to see everyone having dinners at home and spending quality time with their relatives.”

Like Gardner, Yohann Puri, a sophomore in Engineering, experienced his first taste of Thanksgiving his first year in America as well.

“It was a great opportunity to experience Thanksgiving, because it’s something someone like me doesn’t do that often or every year,” Puri said. “The first time I experienced it, I was invited by one of my friends here, so that was a pretty awesome experience being with someone’s culture and experiencing how they do stuff.”

Puri is spending his second year at the University and his second winter break in the U.S. He hails from Mumbai, India, and came to the U.S. not only to study computer engineering at the University, but also to experience something outside of his comfort zone.

While fall breaks aren’t established in either India or the United Kingdom, students do have winter break; however, few U.K. schools treat students to the month-long break the University community is accustomed to.

“At home, we have a Christmas break. It is normally about two weeks long at most schools,” Gardner said. “It starts a bit earlier in December and finishes in early January.”

Just as in the U.S., Christmas is one of the biggest holidays of the year in the U.K., Gardner said, and her family’s Christmas traditions are what she misses most.

“The main thing I miss is the decorating aspect of the holidays, like going and picking out a tree and decorating the house,” she said. “I miss being with my family in general, and of course, I miss Christmas crackers, because, well, they’re just cool.”

Puri, on the other hand, misses Diwali, also known as “the festival of lights.” Diwali, celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs throughout India honors togetherness and the triumph of good over evil. The holiday took place in late October this year and spanned five days.

Each region celebrates the festival of lights in its own way. Celebrations include throwing firecrackers and throwing water and colorful paint at friends.

“They may seem childish, but they make you feel young at heart,” Puri said. “It’s kind of comparable to Fourth of July, but on a different scale.”

While Gardner is traveling back to the U.K. for Christmas, Puri said he plans on spending his here, having spent both his previous fall and winter breaks in the U.S. Puri has celebrated Christmas and its traditions since his childhood in India, and will also spend his winter break celebrating the holiday.

“I stayed with some of my relatives in California last winter break. My relatives had a Christmas tree, and we all had a proper Christmas dinner,” he said. “It’s never been a part of my religion, but it’s always been a fun and meaningful thing to do with my family.”

In the U.K., the day after Christmas, called “Boxing Day,” is a bank holiday where many people get time off of work. It is also special for Gardner and others who hail from England in that it allows them even more time to spend with family. Gardner said she typically goes to her grandparents’ home and eats the bountiful Christmas Day leftovers.

For many British citizens, the feast Americans have during Thanksgiving is similar in size to the dinner they prepare on Christmas.

“Our Christmas dinner is like a big dinner, with all the works. We usually have a big turkey roast, stuffing, parsnips, roasted potatoes, mince pie and more. We also open Christmas crackers, which are brightly wrapped little tubes that when pulled, produce a bang, and little toys, jokes and confetti falls out,” Gardner said. “For dessert, we have Christmas pudding, which is sort of like fruit cakes here. And obviously we eat a lot of chocolate this time of year.”

While Gardner has embraced every American holiday tradition so far, she said she can’t help but find some of the classic American holiday cuisine as atypical.

“Some of the standard foods eaten during the holiday are really strange,” she said. “We don’t really traditionally eat sweet potatoes or anything like that during the holidays.”

While Puri has embraced most of the foods that Americans eat during the holidays, he explained that in India, holiday foods aren’t as standardized across the country as they are in America.

In India, regions have several different interpretations on what holiday food is because the states are divided, mostly on the basis of language. But across India, sweets made with flours, sugar, milk, spices and dried fruits are some of the most widely celebrated holiday foods, especially during Diwali.

“Sweets are the traditional snacks and one of the best things about that is that every state in India sort of has a different snack of their own,” he said. “So if you were spending that same holiday in a different part of India, you’d get a totally different type of cuisines.”

For both students, the aspect they found to be the most heartwarming about the holidays wasn’t any of the traditions, but the time the holidays allow them to spend with friends, family and loved ones.

“It’s definitely a more familial experience,” Puri said. “Technically, religiously, I shouldn’t be celebrating Christmas, but what it is for us, is a family gathering, and that’s why it’s so special.”

Elizabeth can be reached at [email protected]