By Margaret McKinney
New Mexico Highlands University international students from countries like Kosovo, Grenada and Cameroon celebrate Christmas in culturally unique ways while sharing some well-known American traditions.
Biljana Nikolic, 23, is from the small village of Laplje Selo on the outskirts of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. The exchange student is majoring in environmental and agricultural management.
Nikolic is an Eastern Orthodox, a Christian faith common in eastern and southeastern Europe that celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7. Christmas marks the end of a traditional five-week fast from meat, dairy and eggs.
“On Christmas Eve, men and young boys from my village go into the forest to cut badnjak — branches from young oak trees to burn in our fireplaces to bring good luck and happiness to the house,” Nikolic said. “The women stay home to prepare the feast, with dishes like fish, bean stew, special decorated wheat bread, and ajvar, a salad made with minced red pepper. During the meal, we light a tall candle that symbolizes a gift to God.”
Niklovic added: “Christmas is my favorite holiday because it’s strictly for families. Our presents to each other are socks and fruit, and the act of sharing makes us closer. When I was a child, my favorite part of Christmas Eve was bringing hay into the house to symbolize the birthplace of the Christ child. The next morning, we go to Christmas service in a glorious medieval church with soaring architecture that aims to the sky.”
Niklovic hopes to attend Christmas service at an Eastern Orthodox Church in Santa Fe.
Keisha Brathwaite, 28, is from Lower Woburn, St. George’s on the island nation of Grenada in the Caribbean, where the ocean is her backyard. Brathwaite graduated this semester with a master’s degree in media arts. She was also a media arts instructor in visual concepts and digital imaging courses at Highlands.
Brathwaite, a Roman Catholic, was born in Trinidad and raised in Grenada – known as the Isle of Spice for its high exports of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and more.
“For me, the most important part of Christmas is gathering with family to spend time, and going to church together,” Brathwaite said. “One of our traditional Caribbean Christmas foods is black cake, which is extremely delicious. My mom makes wonderful black cake that everyone wants to devour.”
The spicy black cake is made with fruits like cherries and currants soaked in rum or red wine. Other holiday traditions for Brathwaite include listening to Caribbean Christmas music called parang, which originated in Trinidad with Spanish influences from nearby Venezuela.
“Caribbean Christmas music is joyful, lively music with words about love, and gathering with family and friends. When I heard Spanish music for the first time at Immaculate Conception Church in Las Vegas, it sounded so similar to parang music from Trinidad,” Brathwaite said.
She said her favorite Caribbean holiday drink is called sorrel, a sweet non-alcoholic drink made from fresh or dried hibiscus flowers and spices. Brathwaite makes sorrel year-round in Las Vegas with dried Flor de Jamaica she finds at the local Lowe’s grocery store.
Chrys Djatche de Kamgaing, 18, is a biology/chemistry major from Douala, a major Cameroonian city on the western coast of this central African country. He is a non-denominational Christian.
“For me, the most important part of Christmas is Christ, and trying to be more holy,” Djatche de Kamgaing said. “My favorite Christmas memory is spending all night long at church singing songs like Amazing Grace and Old Time Religion. I like to sing loud and it makes me so happy.”
He said that on Christmas Eve, the traditional Cameroonian foods depend on which tribe you are from, and upon the wishes of the children. In addition, “city food” like fried plantains with chicken is common.
“My tribe is Bsmiléké and taro is our traditional Christmas food. It’s a really good root vegetable kind of like a potato and is cooked with a spicy sauce,” Djatche de Kamgaing said.
Growing up, he enjoyed decorating an artificial Christmas trees with his brother using lights, bulbs, stars and candy that disappeared quickly. The young brothers believed in Santa Claus until they figured out their mother put the gifts under the tree.
Tina Clayton, director of the university’s International Education Office, hosted a festive holiday party Dec. 7 for international students who are far from home.
“I am so grateful for these kinds of events, and always enjoy spending time with Tina and other international students,” Nikolic said. “The food was great, with many new dishes I have never tried before.”