Exchange students reflect on spending holidays in America

MANISTEE — Although there were smiles on their faces, the eyes of many foreign exchange students told another story as they reflected on holiday traditions in their own countries.

Foreign exchange students from Manistee Area Public and Onekama schools proudly show off the gifts they received during their recent gift exchange. The event was held to help the students celebrate Christmas as they are so far from their homes this time of the year.

Foreign exchange students from Manistee Area Public and Onekama schools proudly show off the gifts they received during their recent gift exchange. The event was held to help the students celebrate Christmas as they are so far from their homes this time of the year.

For more than 20 foreign exchange students at Manistee and Onekama high schools the Christmas holiday will be the first time away from those family and friends at this time of the year. As several of them talked about what Christmas was like in their country, it was easy to see that their minds were drifting back to the previous years of spending that time with parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters.

To help ease any possible twinges of homesickness this time of the year Council for Educational Travel USA (CETUSA) Northern Community Coordinator Cathy Hanus recently held a Christmas party for the students at the Manistee United Methodist Church. Hanus pointed out that the students come from a wide variety countries that celebrate Christmas similar to America, but that some are getting their first look at the holiday because they don’t celebrate in their country.

“It helps them realize the joy of giving gifts to their family members and sharing traditions from their countries,” said Hanus. “Some of them brought cookies made with recipes from their own families for everyone to try. We also do a gift exchange and they have a lot of fun with it.”

Hugo from Sweden said Christmas celebrations here don’t vary much from the ones celebrated in his country.

“We have Santa Lucia that we celebrate about a week before here, but otherwise it is same,” he said. “We exchange gifts and open them up on Dec. 24 at night and instead of Santa coming down the chimney he comes through the front door. The dad usually goes out to buy a paper or something and then comes back in with a big bag of presents and asks for all the good children and passes out the gifts.”

One of the fun things during the gift exchange was students who were selecting had the opportunity to “steal” the gift that someone else drew ahead of them. Manistee junior Rocco Stazszcak (left) takes a gift from Manistee junior Alexis Kitchen (right), while exchange students Irene from Spain, Bow from Thailand and Hugo from Sweden look on.

One of the fun things during the gift exchange was students who were selecting had the opportunity to “steal” the gift that someone else drew ahead of them. Manistee junior Rocco Stazszcak (left) takes a gift from Manistee junior Alexis Kitchen (right), while exchange students Irene from Spain, Bow from Thailand and Hugo from Sweden look on.

With technology what it is today in terms of cell phones and Skype, Hugo said he has been in regular contact with his parents, friends and family so he plans to speak with them on Christmas. However, he said what is helping being away from home is he is staying with a great host family with Rob and Amy Pepera.

“It’s still going to be a little sad being away from my family, but it will be fine,” he said.

Host families like to make the holidays special for their foreign exchange students and often they bring their own family traditions to the forefront. For host parent Leah Cordes, that means bringing out a lot of traditional things from her own family.

“I do everything that we normally do, but then I always want to do everything I have ever done in my life so they experience it all,” she said. “I have one from a country with no snow, so we have been focusing on sledding, making a snowman on Christmas Eve,  going to church,” said Cordes. “We have decorated our Christmas tree and made Christmas cookies, stockings. They weren’t excited about going to midnight church, but I told them we could go sledding afterward and now they are excited about it.”

Host parent Paula Laws said she and her husband Rod began hosting students several years ago and they try to do some of the more traditional things at Christmas.

“We used to have an artificial tree and now we cut one down to give them that whole experience,” said Laws. We take them to a Christmas tea. During the Sleighbell Parade we went to that program at the old Danish church and our student from Denmark said it was like being back at home.”

For host parents Terry and Kelly McColl, they look forward to the skating rink being set up at Sands Park with their student.

“We pretty much do our traditional Christmas,” said Terry.

Kelly added that with the student they are hosting this year it is easy.

“He doesn’t celebrate Christmas in Korea so it is easy and everything is new to him,” she said. “I think he is enjoying it. We are looking forward to taking him to the skating rink and he is a skier so he is looking forward to doing that as well.”

Irene who is from Madrid, Spain said that in her country things differ a great deal as they celebrate Epiphany. In Spanish, Epiphany is called “Fiesta de Los tres Reyes Mages” in English this means “The festival of the three Magic Kings.” Children often open one gift on Christmas Day and then do the rest on Epiphany.

“Christmas is celebrated on Jan. 6 and that is the day we open all the gifts,” she said. “Santa Claus comes to our houses, but he only brings us like one present.  I am missing my family this time of the year.”

Camilla from Italy said in her country the Christmas Day celebration is almost the same as in America.

“Christmas Day is the same celebration like here, but we celebrate the Epiphany on Jan. 6 and basically an old lady on a broom, who is almost a witch comes through your house and if you have been a good kid you receive candy and if you have been a naughty one your receive nothing.”

Something else she has found intriguing about living this year in Northern Michigan is the snow.

“You have lots of snow here and we usually don’t get much in Italy,” she said. “It is unusual, so that is special.”

Caroline from Denmark  said they always celebrate Christmas on Dec. 24 and it is quite similar to many American celebrations.

“We will eat a big dinner at night first and then open presents,” she said. “We also dance around the Christmas tree, eat a lot of Christmas cookies and just have fun. In Denmark we have a lot of Christmas markets (stores) and there isn’t a lot of that here. Something else that is different here is there is a lot of Christmas lights on houses and in Denmark it is very simple so that is one of the big differences.”

Oscar lives in Finland. He said Christmas Eve is the day they celebrate the most and open the Christmas presents.

“It’s been very fun to celebrate Christmas here, but it is pretty similar,” he said.

Ecuador’s  Anthony said things are much different in his country in how they celebrate.

“It is totally different as we have big parades every day with a different topic and the first day we celebrate Santa Claus is coming and second day we celebrate with a big carnival and the last day we celebrate with family and friends,” he said.

Despite the many traditions and ways that people celebrate Christmas around the world, the one thing that rings loud and clear everywhere is spending time with family and friends to mark the occasion is special around the world.

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Posted by Ken Grabowski

Ken is News Advocate’s education reporter. He coordinates coverage for all Manistee County schools and West Shore Community College. He can be reached by phone at (231) 398-3125 or by email at kgrabowski@pioneergroup.com.

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