The Diversity of Winter Holidays

An investigative piece into the different cultural ways of celebrating the winter holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, CNY)

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I sat anxiously in my father’s work building in Rockefeller Center, on November 29, glancing occasionally at the massive, green tree waiting to be lit. My father, along with some of his coworkers, my mother, and I, stayed in the building from the late afternoon right up until 9 p.m. Like any other Stuyvesant kid probably would, I spent most of the time doing my homework as conversations flowed around me.

I’d take a break and peer out the window, seeing the electrified center; snowflake-shaped lights traced around the surrounding buildings. A large screen projected the many performers that night: the Rockettes, Train, Mariah Carey, and others. The entire street block was fully surrounded by huddled crowds of people enjoying the show. When the lights went on, the center erupted. Something inside me intensified as a smile spread across my face.

As New York City gets ready for the winter, the cold air and shorter days take on another meaning; decorations are hung and trees are lit. It seems as if the holidays are on everyone’s minds. For some, there is a conventional attitude toward and method to celebrating the winter holidays, set by the tone of the city. However, for others, cultural and ethnic diversity lead to different ideas of what the holidays mean, different ways and opinions in which they should be celebrated, and even different holidays that are celebrated. Contrary to popular belief, Stuyvesant hosts a diverse student body, within which different Stuyvesant families have various approaches to the winter holidays.

For sophomore Kelvin Vuong, whose family is from Vietnam, Christmas is a chance to be with family and forget about the responsibilities of school for a time. Vuong gets together with his extended family in Jamaica, Queens, to enjoy a wide variety of Eastern food―from hot pot to delicious banhxeo, fried rice pancakes stuffed with pork or bean sprouts. “My grandma makes it really well, she uses special flour from Vietnam to make it,” Vuong said.

In terms of celebrating Christmas, Vuong says that his family takes little formal action to decorate the house or wrap up presents. “Although, there’s this really hardcore Christian tenant renting the apartment above from us. She put a tree up at Thanksgiving!” Vuong exclaimed. Vuong’s family may not be the type to celebrate Christmas to its full extent, despite others around taking greater measures. “You have to respect the people who do,” he said. “It really is special.”

Freshman Chrisabella Javier also identifies as Catholic, but coming from the Philippines, her family celebrates Christmas very differently from Vuong. “I remember when I was four and we were staying up until midnight to open the presents,” she reminisced. In the Philippines, more importance is placed on Christmas Eve than the following day, which may seem strange to Americans, but in countries with Spanish or Eastern European influence, this is the norm. “Usually, we just go to mass in the morning [on Christmas Day] and then stay in for a while,” she explained.

Similarly to Americans, however, Filipinos start preparing for Christmas extremely early, not because the holiday has become commercialized there, but because it is the biggest holiday in the Philippines. “My aunt, who lives in the Philippines, already had all of her Christmas decorations out by October,” Javier said. “Once September starts, all of the Christmas stuff goes on sale.”

Christmas isn’t the only major holiday celebrated around this time. Sophomore Leon Maksin celebrates Hanukkah in the wintertime, and as a Jewish family that emigrated from the Ukraine, his family places a lot of significance on the holiday. “My parents couldn’t really be Jewish, but when they came to America, they started being religious. Back home, they didn’t really do anything [for Hanukkah],” he said.

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, with the first and last day being seen as more important than the ones in the middle. “Since I have five siblings, we light a menorah for each person,” Maksin said, explaining how both the children and adults in his family are involved in the holiday. He and his siblings get a gift every night and spend the time with their family.

Because Hanukkah is celebrated based on the Hebrew Calendar, it comes at a different time each year. For example, four years ago, it was celebrated around Thanksgiving, while this year, it started on December 13. “My favorite time is when it doesn’t overlap with anything, when it’s just in the middle,” Maksin stated. “I like having something to look forward to all the time, whether it be Hanukkah or Christmas break.”

At the same time, a large number of people do not celebrate anything. For sophomore Moududur Rahman and other Muslim students, the winter time is quiet in terms of festivities, especially this year. “I try to avoid the holidays, for many reasons,” he admitted. “We don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s kind of frowned upon. With my friends, sure, we exchange gifts,” he stated. “My family takes advantage of the Christmas sales, but that’s it.” As religious Muslims, Rahman’s parents do not celebrate Christmas in any way, in order to stay true to their own culture. “However, if someone were to yell, ‘Merry Christmas,’ at me in the street, I would yell it back to them,” he explained.

As a person that gets into the Christmas spirit when the time comes, Rahman hates the commercialization of the holiday. “When I was younger, I really wanted to celebrate Christmas because all of my friends were getting these really cool gifts, and I would only get something after I accomplished something important,” Rahman explained. To him, gifts shouldn’t be given without a reason, and capitalism has only turned Christmas into an excuse for millions to buy their loved ones extravagant gifts when they should not be needed at all.

Although Rahman’s family rejects the celebration of Christmas in order to avoid becoming Americanized, other families embrace it in order to do just that. Sophomore Jasmine Xiao does not identify as Christian, yet ever since her family came to America from China, Christmas has been celebrated in some way or another. “I remember this Christmas gift I got, these Scooby-Doo gummy pops or something,” she laughed. “Nowadays, we usually just get money, just like for Chinese New Year.”

In February 2016, Chinese New Year was first recognized as a school holiday in the city, and schools were closed for the first day of the celebration. “We should really get more [days off]. The New Years’ celebration is basically our equivalent of Christmas,” Xiao explained.

Although Christmas is often the first holiday that comes to mind when the phrase “winter holidays” is thrown around, one of New York’s distinguishing features is its diversity. Our city is a melting pot of cultures, which is why some people celebrate Christmas, while others celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, or nothing at all. While this may make our city seem divided, all of the different holidays and the time off that people are given at this time of year allow everyone, regardless of religion or background, to spend time with their loved ones, enjoying their company. No matter what you celebrate, or how you celebrate it, these feelings are universal.