Posted on December 24, 2008

Immigrants Coping with Christmas Culture Shock

Shannon Proudfoot, Canwest News Service, Dec. 22, 2008

For many immigrants and refugees, the first Christmas in Canada means first snows, dazzling light displays and weaving their own traditions in with those of their new home.

But the festive excess of North America can also be difficult for those fleeing extreme deprivation and for newcomers grappling with poverty and unemployment.

“The whole concept of Christmas is both exciting and overwhelming for these families,” said Chris Friesen, the Vancouver-based director of settlement services for the Immigrant Services Society of British Columbia.

Many are dealing with culture shock, he says, and those whose families aren’t intact feel that more acutely at a time when everyone is focused on family. Even Santa Claus is a hard-to-grasp notion for children who have lived through upheaval in their homelands, he says.

“For many of the refugee children who have been in these camps for years and years, the whole concept of this person who dresses up and you’re supposed to tell him your wishes for Christmas is absolutely foreign,” Friesen said.

“It’s daunting and a little bit scary on the one hand, but also exciting.”

The Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers was “buzzing” with excitement last week over the annual end-of-term holiday party for the adult language students, says executive director Jim Gurnett.

The party typically includes a potluck lunch overflowing with ethnic dishes, decorations and gift exchanges, while students practice their English skills in a show that’s earned big laughs in the past for riffing on the frustrations of shopping as a newcomer.

“There is a real excitement about discovering how Canada celebrates this major holiday and figuring out how to be part of it,” Gurnett said.

He estimates about one-third of the 10,000 people who access the centre each year come from predominantly Christian countries where Christmas is celebrated, though they’re curious about the North American version of the holiday. Another third has no strong faith background and is intrigued by the celebration, he says, while the rest come from other faiths.

Like other multicultural agencies, Gurnett says the centre takes pains to make its holiday celebrations inclusive and respectful of other traditions and beliefs.

However, he believes the commercialization of Christmas is more stressful for newcomers than any religious issues. Immigrants face the same difficulties as Canadian-born families with little money around the holidays, he says — especially when their children begin to acclimate to Canada and want to celebrate like their classmates.

Maya Rajeev Jonathan, 27, moved to Canada from Sri Lanka just three weeks ago and her husband was fortunate to land a customer service position almost immediately.

Rajeev Jonathan is still looking for a job, but they have an extensive network of family and friends in Toronto and she’s been thoroughly delighted by the snow, decorations and lights accompanying what she says is only a minor holiday in her homeland.

“Even though Christmas is not our festival, we are quite enjoying Christmas by going shopping and going to Christmas parties,” she said.