A new home for the holidays: Holidays in America for Foreign Exchange student Natalia Campos

As many prepare their homes and hearts for the holiday season, others are trying new ways to commemorate the holidays. These changes and different types of celebrations can truly create new perspectives than what everyone is accustomed to.

When most people think of the holidays, their versions include spending time with family, baking seasonal special treats and partaking in longstanding traditions of this jolly time of year. However, for one of the high school’s newest foreign exchange students, junior Natalia Muntanola, her holiday season will look a little different than normal this year.

As a native of Spain, Natalia decided she wanted to spend this school year in America, desiring for that American Dream. After convincing her parents that the opportunity would be good for her culturally and to learn English, she jumped right into her new lifestyle for the year.

By joining many clubs, the cross country team and the girls wrestling team, Muntañola didn’t let the uniqueness of her new surroundings change her attitude. Regardless of anything thrown her way, Muntanola is ecstatic about this new “normal”.

By spending the school year in the states, Muntanola will get to experience many things that are either not celebrated at her home in Madrid or are commemorated differently.

“I’m very excited to spend Christmas here because I have seen in the American movies all the fun activities that we really don’t do in Spain,” Muntanola said. Specifically, she is looking forward to observing houses decorated with strands of lights because in Spain, Muntanola and her family typically only decorate a tree inside of her home.

In addition to the decor aspect, Muntanola is anticipating the sense of family that comes along with the holidays. “My plans this year are to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with my host family and their (extended) family who will travel to be with us on these special days.”

Specifically for Christmas, Muntanola’s mom will be coming to the States, keeping the holidays somewhatnormal given all the major, yet once-in-a-lifetime changes.

“As I expected, I think she is encountering a variety of learning situations, meeting new challenges: from managing her daily life in a new city and language, while meeting people outside of Spanish. It’s a valuable experience in itself, but it will also prepare her for university life.”

However, living in America for the holidays is more than just Christmas for Muntanola. “The most different thing that I plan to do here is Thanksgiving; it’s not a celebration in my country and I really want to know how it is,” Muntanola said.

Knowing she will be learning many American traditions, Muntanola is excited to share one of her favorite traditions to ring in the New Year, or “Old Night” as it is called in Spain.

“For ‘Noche Vieja’ the tradition is to eat 12 grapes in the last 12 seconds of the year. It’s a lot of fun because you usually don’t have enough time to eat them all.”

Living in a new country is a whirlwind, something Muntanola has come to embrace and enjoy the little things. For her, those little things can truly be as miniscule as a garden or a hike with her host family.

“I know beautiful places made by nature, which makes hiking more fun. We also live in a house and that’s really different for me because in Spain, I live on the seventh floor of a building in the city. So now, I appreciate the things like having a garden in my backyard.”

Given that she’s only halfway through her academic year in Ohio, and already enjoying the new culture that the holidays bring, for Muntanola, it’s exciting to be in a home away from home.

While a new place can make a large impact on how one celebrates the holidays and combines the cultures together, geography and physical location can have its own set of effects.

In the United States, it’s no doubt that the holiday times are something many families look forward to. Popular activities such as attending church, ice skating, hanging lights and giving gifts are typical for the Christmas celebrations. Not to mention, the dozens of other beautiful ways to celebrate different holidays, such as Kwanzaa, a celebration of African culture, or Diwali, a Hindu holiday that is also known as the Festival of Lights. However, for Christmas specifically, traditions can look very different from country to country, and culture to culture.

For Spanish teacher Angie Jackson, growing up in Guatemala gave her a unique perspective on holiday celebration.

“Here [the United States] it's tranquil, some go to church and kids are put to bed early for Santa to visit. However, in Guatemala, Christmas Eve is a FIESTA! At midnight everyone goes outside and fireworks light up the sky. My uncles love fire crackers as well, so the streets are filled with loud snaps and the sky is full of lights and loud booms,” Jackson said.

This extravagant holiday celebration differs greatly from the quiet nights in the United States, when kids are told to fall asleep or else Santa may not come. In fact, the fun usually lasts until about 4 a.m., Jackson said.

“Upon our return to the house [from the festivities], under the tree would appear presents. Santa came every year at midnight,” Jackson said.

While the culture in Guatemala calls for a much more lively, dynamic celebration of Christmas Eve than several families in the United States have, there still remains many similarities between the two countries. For instance, on Christmas day itself, Jackson’s family attends church and gathers for a family meal, which is popular part of American celebration also.

As well, the climate in Guatemala created a different effect for the holiday than many states in the U.S. receive.

“Guatemala is always about 75 degrees. This warmer climate does make it easier to do things outside, especially for New Year’s Eve and Holy Week. Most of my family spends these holidays at the beach,” Jackson said.

The summery, enjoyable weather seems to make it more customary for families to take the jubilant festivities outdoors, rather than the cozier, bundled-up feel of celebrations in Ohio.

Junior Natalia Muntañola, a foreign-exchange student at the high school this year, had similar feelings about her home country of Spain. “I am really excited to see the snow here because in Spain we have warm weather, and it snows very rarely. I’m looking forward to that moment and to make the snowman that I have never been able to do!” Muntañola said.

In addition, it’s no doubt that gifts are highly emphasized in American culture. From thousands of product commercials, to the extravaganza of Black Friday, the receiving of presents can sometimes feel like an overwhelming factor of the holiday times. For Jackson, this element wasn’t the same in Guatemala.

“Gifts are definitely MORE here in the US. We still received gifts in Guatemala (from Santa) but not to the extent that we do here. On Jan. 6, El Dia de Los Reyes Magos (Three Kings Day), we would receive a small gift as well,” Jackson said.

Overall, the culture of the holidays can differ greatly from country to country. Whether it’s attending a church service, gazing at fireworks, or celebrating a different holiday altogether, each tradition is unique and delightful.

The holidays are a meaningful time for everyone, not just those celebrating one specific holiday. All around the globe, and here at Orange, many different traditions and practices can be shared.

America upholds a reputation for its diversity, so a wide array of cultures and ethnicities can be found even in Columbus. Instead of just Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, there are holidays such as Eid for Muslims and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Even though they are holidays that are not as common, the people who celebrate it are passionate about their experiences.

After Ramadan, which is a month dedicated to fasting and spiritual cleansing, has ended, Muslims will celebrate Eid. For Olentangy Liberty junior Juhi Sameer, Eid is her favorite holiday. “The best part about it is the entire process that leads to the day. The entire month of fasting, fighting bad sins, deeds and thoughts, bonding with family and enduring hardships is such a beautiful process and it makes Eid so worth it.”

There is a lot that goes into making this holiday what it is. For her family, Sameer said that they typically wake up early for the first prayer of the day, called Fajr. Then, they cook traditional meals.

In addition to these preparations, the family participates in religious activities to celebrate. “After breakfast, we head straight to the masjid and after listening to the Khutbah(Islamic lecture), the imam(prayer leader) leads our Eid prayer. Then, we’re free to have fun, meet lots of friends and family and eat,” Sameer said.

For Sameer, this celebration is incredible and further connects her to her religion. For example, “if you spend the last 10 days of Ramadan sincerely repenting and praying, Allah takes away all your bad deeds from the entirety of the year so basically you get a clean slate, a chance to start over, and honestly it’s so beautiful there isn’t any other way to describe it,” Sameer said.

Another less commonly celebrated holiday is Passover, a celebration of the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Olentangy Berlin junior Rebecca Erikson celebrates it in honor of her Jewish heritage.

“It usually lasts seven to eight nights, but my family just has one big feast together and that’s that-it’s kind of like Thanksgiving,” Erikson said. All families celebrate their own holidays differently, and this is a great example of adapting the ‘normal’ to fit each family’s dynamic.

In addition to Passover, Erikson celebrates Chanukah, which lasts eight days and usually is referred to more commonly as Hanukkah. “Chanukah is usually close to Christmas but it varies because it’s dependent on the Jewish calendar, a lunisolar calendar. [Hanukkah] celebrates the rededication of the first temple by the Maccabees from the Syrians. We celebrate by lighting a candle every night and saying a prayer to thank God for the oil,” Erikson said.

What Erikson considers the saddest holiday is Tisha B'Av, believed to be a day destined for disaster. “It is a 25 hour fast to signify what our ancestors went through on that day. The Solomons temple was destroyed by the Neo- Babylonian Empire and the second temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire in Jerusalem,” Erikson said.

Olentangy Orange junior Movi Gunatilaka practices Buddhism, which can oftentimes be difficult to connect with in America. For Gunatilaka this is because her temple is in Cincinnati, almost two hours away. “My family used to celebrate Vesak a lot but since the temple we go to is so far we don’t do it as much,” Gunatilaka said.

Vesak is one of the most prominent holidays celebrated by the Gunatilaka family. “We make lanterns and [sometimes go] to the temple, light candles, bring food and eat it with everybody after praying,” Gunatilaka says. If Buddhism was more popular in America and easier to celebrate, Gunatilaka says that she would honor Vesak more often.

All in all, everyone has their own ways to celebrate, whether it’s Christmas or Eid; in the sand or snow; and if it’s at home or away for the holidays. Respecting, honoring and learning about the celebrations of others can truly be the meaning of the season.


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