Christmas rituals of immigrants affected by life in new country

By Andrea Lynn

For new immigrant families, Christmas in the United States often became a new holiday -- a Christmas patchwork quilt of sorts, made of old, altered and newly invented customs.

So says Elizabeth Pleck, a professor of American history and of human development and family studies at the UI. Pleck, who is writing a book about the evolution of American family rituals, also has found that long-lost Christmas customs have been revived and refashioned by newcomers, and even borrowed from other cultures. Consider the case of immigrant Jews in America.

As early as 1900, some American rabbis began condoning the celebration of Christmas among Jews, arguing that it was a secular, rather than a sacred, holiday. However, in the 1920s, pressures from the marketplace, the child-centered Jewish culture, and the desire to provide a Jewish alternative to the Gentile holiday prompted the rediscovery of Hanukkah, the minor Jewish festival commemorating the victory of Jewish patriot Judas Maccabee over the Syrians. Pleck writes that various "champions of Hanukkah remade the festival to be a special holiday for children."

For Jews, Christmas in America has been a "battleground," Pleck said, "that has divided Jews from Christians, and caused a great deal of conflict even among Jews."

Many obscure or moribund Christmas customs were revived in America in the 1960s as part of the new interest in ethnic consciousness. One of them involved Santa Lucia. The festival for the martyred maiden who brought food to fellow Christians in the catacombs and who then was mutilated and murdered by the Romans, had been confined to western Sweden. It was a day devoted to drunkenness and revelry. Santa Lucia was rarely celebrated among Swedes in the United States until the 1960s, when, in the largely Swedish-American town of Lindsborg, Kan., it became a way to boost Christmas business.

In 1962, Lindsborg began a public performance of Santa Lucia. Local girls, dressed in white robes and crowned with candle-lit evergreen wreaths, served cookies and coffee to holiday shoppers. With the addition of food and art sales, musicians and folk dances, the program attracted tourists and caught on in the Midwest, especially in Bishop Hill, Ill., the Andersonville section of Chicago, and St. Paul, Minn.

"There was a charming irony, of course," Pleck said: "The desire to escape from the commercialism and homogeneity of the American shopping mall led tourists to an ersatz presentation intended to encourage Christmas shopping."

Between 1900 and 1920, first-generation Polish immigrants, most of them working class, celebrated Christmas -- called Wigilia in the old country -- not as they had in Poland, but as they wished they had. Now more affluent, they emulated the Christmas of wealthy urban Poles, and added various American customs -- hanging stockings, sending greeting cards and gift-giving, which "was unheard of in Poland," Pleck said.


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