Westminster students celebrate holidays

FULTON, Mo. — Westminster College students from Costa Rica, Namibia, Lebanon and Thailand among other countries gathered on Christmas Day for brunch and a chance to be together.

With school out of session for the winter break, many international students are unable to travel home due to visa restrictions, finances or work and internship responsibilities, according to Paola Protti-Nunez, a fellow with the Multicultural Student Development Program. Protti-Nunez, a Costa Rica native, was a Westminster student who graduated in 2012.

She said many international students are single-entry visitors through their visas, meaning their current visas allow them into the U.S. once, and others cannot afford a round-trip plane ticket that can cost up to $5,000. Some students, she added, find practical career experience through internships or make extra money by working.

While international students can battle homesickness, Protti-Nunez said as a student, her friends, professors and staff members at Westminster eventually felt like a second family. She added that international students build a “network of support” for each other because they understand what being away from home is like.

For Protti-Nunez, the “missing” feeling goes two ways.

“When I’m here, I’m missing my family at home. But when I’m home, I’m missing my family here (at Westminster),” she said.

On Christmas Eve, Protti-Nunez said she spent the holiday with her family through Skype. She talked with relatives and watched them open presents.

“It’s like I’m there for a little bit,” Protti-Nunez said. “I just don’t get to eat the food.”

Costa Rica

While the brunch was on Christmas, not all the students were Christian, but took the opportunity to come together with fellow international students.

Protti-Nunez said most Costa Ricans are Catholic. The 2006 U.S. Department of State International Religious Freedom Report states the most recent study, which the University of Costa Rica conducted in 2004, found 47 percent of Costa Ricans are practicing Catholics and 25 percent are non-practicing Catholics.

She added Costa Ricans celebrate Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day because of the belief that Jesus was born at midnight. In Costa Rica, she said, people stay up sometimes until 2 a.m. to celebrate the first hours of Jesus’ life. When children in Costa Rica go to sleep, they aren’t anticipating Santa bringing them presents — they dream of Baby Jesus delivering gifts, Protti-Nunez said.

Westminster student Diego Morera said a nativity scene is found in many homes in Costa Rica.

“That’s kind of like our Christmas tree,” Morera said, explaining that a nativity scene is very traditional.

But unlike a Christmas tree, presents won’t be near a nativity scene. Costa Ricans treat Christmas morning like a scavenger hunt — they search under beds, pillows and throughout their homes to find their gifts, Morera said.

The signature Christmas dish in Costa Rica is tamales made with banana leaves, potatoes and various meats. Morera said he enjoys preparing tamales to remind him of home.

“It’s simple but when you’re far away it means so much,” Morera said.

Overall, Protti-Nunez said, Christmas in Costa Rica and the U.S. is very similar.

“Pretty much what changes is the language,” she said.

Namibia, Africa

A Namibian Christmas, as described by Westminster student Tjizembua Tjikuzu, seems like an American’s Christmas in July.

The temperature on Christmas Day in Namibia, Africa, was 26 degrees Celsius, or 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

On Christmas Eve in Namibia, people rush home from the city to homes in villages. Hunters will kill a sheep and then it is barbecued and served with salads, rice and porridge. Around 4 p.m., Tjikuzu said, families go to church and watch a play about the birth of Jesus. Families then exchange dishes.

Namibians wake up early to watch the sun rise on Christmas Day. Tjikuzu said Namibians believe the “sun dances” on Dec. 25.

According to a Christian-based missionary organization, Serving in Mission, Christians make up 90 percent of Namibia’s population.

Lebanon

Christians and Muslims make up the main religious base of Lebanon, said Hussein Attara, the president of Westminster’s International Club.

According to a January 2013 report from the Lebanese Information Center, an official census has not been conducted in the country since 1932, but the most recent statistics from The World Factbook through the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency finds 59.7 percent of the Lebanese population is Muslim and 39 percent is Christian.

Muslim and Christian traditions sometimes cross lines, Attara said, using the example that some Muslims will put up a Christmas tree with presents underneath depending on a family’s economic standing. Attara, who is Muslim, said after speaking with his Lebanese Christian friends, knows that Christmas in Lebanon is “church-oriented” and people visit with their extended families.

Attara said Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet — someone who spoke and lived by the word of God. Muslims believe Jesus’ birthday was in the summer, but hold no special celebrations.

The most sacred traditions for Muslims are the two eids — Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha — which dates are based on the lunar calendar. Eid Al-Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramadan, the month in which Muslims fast every day until sunset.

“The family gives money to the little kids, and we buy food and other stuff that you’re supposed to give to charity,” Attara said. “Ramadan is supposed to make you feel what others don’t have.”

Attara said he and his dad would cook rice and slaughter a goat to feed the hungry.

Eid Al-Adha is a celebration that celebrates sacrifice and is centered on the Quran story of God testing Ibrahim by asking him to kill his son.

Bangkok, Thailand

For Westminster student Vinny Ekphaisansup, his most important holidays focus on celebrations of a new year — one in January and one in April.

Ekphaisansup celebrates two new years based on the standard calendar and the Buddhist calendar. For the January new year celebration, Ekphaisansup goes to temple with his family, counts down on New Year’s Eve and watches fireworks.

The new year on the Buddhist calendar is Songkran, which is April 13-15. Ekphaisansup said Buddhists pour water on their elders to symbolize “washing away past sins.” Then, people flood the streets to play and spray water on each other. With three days of celebration, Ekphaisansup said he prefers Songkran over New Year’s Day.

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