Beyond Chicago: DePaul students celebrate holiday traditions from around the world

December 25, 2019

As soon as Fall Quarter came to a close, many students left DePaul’s campuses either to kick back and ring in the holidays with family or continued studying over the December Intersession. While many will remain in the Chicagoland area, other students will be celebrating all over the world. 

“I love the unique aspects of the traditions,” said Clara Orban, a French and Italian professor and author at DePaul University. 

Orban was in the French cities of Paris and Montpellier with her study abroad class, “France: The World of Wine,” where students learned about the production of wine by being exposed to French culture, cuisine, history and more. Like Orban’s class, many other students are currently learning about the traditions in foreign countries through their December study abroad programs and are seeing how this compares to the United States. Among DePaul students, there was an increase in the popularity of study abroad programs by 0.9 percent from 2018 compared to 2017, according to the university’s Global Engagement Report.

However, the holidays are a time when many students come home from college to their families. For many international students, this means returning back from abroad. As of 2018, DePaul represents 120 countries from all continents, the Global Engagement report said. Yet, because holiday traditions are celebrated differently all over the world, along with the hassle of traveling back and forth, international students are faced with the choice to celebrate with their families back home or to stay in Chicago. 

For Adriana Talavera, the winter break is used for her to reconnect with her family. Talavera is a junior at DePaul studying public relations and advertising and journalism. She is originally from Mexico and was initially surprised to see how Thanksgiving was treated with the same importance as Mexicans would treat Christmas Eve. In her freshman year, she was introduced to how Thanksgiving was celebrated by going to a supermarket and hearing “gobble gobble” over the speakers for the first time in her life. 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In Mexico, the holiday season starts on Dec. 12, which marks the virgin of Guadalupe. According to Britannica, this is when the Virgin Mary converted to Christianity in 1531. Since then, she has become a powerful religious symbol in Mexico, as it is a Catholic-dominant country and she was a part of making that happen.  

Between Dec. 12 and Christmas Eve, Mexicans hold “posadas,” which are Christmas parties celebrated with friends, classmates, coworkers and many others. This can either be celebrated with cultural traditions or just be a regular get-together.  

On Dec. 24, Talavera explained that hers and other Mexican families stay awake until the early morning the next day and celebrate until late at night. 

My favorite parts about the holidays is being together with my family,” Talavera said. “I also love that everyone is in a good mood. Being a little more selfish, I also love all of the good food my aunts make.”

The season ends on Jan. 6 with All Kings Day, or “Dia Des Reyes.” This is known elsewhere as Epiphany, which is the feast celebrating when God incarnated into Jesus Christ. 

Tavalera’s household celebrates in Mexican tradition by baking a cake and putting a baby Jesus figure inside. The member of the family who discovers the baby Jesus has to cook tamales for the preceding holiday, “Dia De La Candelaria.” According to Trip Savy’s website, this is where Mexicans dress up as figures from the Christ Child and go to church to be blessed. This then follows with family gatherings. 

Like Mexico, France also celebrates Epiphany on Jan. 6 with “Galette Des Rois,” with the baby Jesus inside the cake. Simultaneously, France has a calendar full of holidays which are a mixture of uniquely French celebrations along with ones incorporated from other countries. Through her studies of France, Orban has been shocked to see how the country is implementing holidays that don’t have a significance in its history – one of the holidays being Black Friday.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Black Friday has really no sense in a culture that does not celebrate Thanksgiving, and yet it has begun to penetrate,” Orban said.

Orban’s study abroad program allowed for students to understand why wine was a staple beverage in the French culture. On Christmas, the French pour bottles from their region of the country and champagne is used to ring in the New Year. France’s use of wine to celebrate the holidays makes the country both unique and similar to other cultures. Many countries around the world celebrate with alcohol; however, France’s wine has a distinct taste which makes it unique to the culture. As the country has borrowed traditions from Nordic countries, such as the Christmas tree, France has unique Nativity scenes called “The Manger Scene,” where the south of the country uses “Santon” figures, which are doll-like. 

Orban is of Italian and Hungarian descent and incorporates holiday traditions from both of those cultures. However, she is also spreading French traditions within the Modern Language Department at DePaul and hopes for their community to grow. 

“We do have many French or Francophone faculty and students at DePaul,” Orban said. “I know that in the Department of Modern Languages we would love to bring those people together, along with our current students, to explore and celebrate these different cultures.”

Study abroad programs are a way for students and faculty to get together and immerse themselves in a culture and it benefits anyone in any branch of study at DePaul. This has been true for Samantha Mallett, a senior at DePaul studying marketing with a concentration in digital marketing. Mallett’s most recent study abroad trip was the India program with the business school for this December Intersession. 

“I decided to attend the India program because it’s an excellent opportunity to network with professionals and a new way to challenge myself to learn the skill of adaptability,” Mallett said. “It’s been difficult but incredibly rewarding,”

Unlike the Western World, India doesn’t have any unique traditions around this time of year, but Christmas is a holiday recognized across the country. Diwali is earlier in the fall and is the festival of lights ringing in the Hindu New Year. The intensity of the celebration matches with how the Western World commercializes Christmas and the Gregorian New Year. However, Mallett was drawn to the ongoing spirituality India has to offer.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“India has inspired me to try to find more ways to give to others, to not be self-indulgent and the value of family,” Mallett said. “I try to talk with someone new everyday about their lives here and everyone values their relationships the most, which is something I wish existed more in the United States.”

Similar to India, the Chinese New Year does not fall during DePaul’s winter break. But that doesn’t stop Peggy Renée and her family from incorporating their own traditions. 

Renée is a first year graduate student studying business and is originally from Taiwan. Similar to India, Taiwan’s most-celebrated holidays don’t fall in December, as Chinese New Year falls in the middle of winter and the Moon Festival is in the fall. Because of this, Renée is in school while these holidays are taking place, so she spends time with her relatives in the United States. 

Renée sees her Taiwanese family every December and they take an annual trip around Asia. They either choose to visit Japan or South Korea. Having spent the holidays on two different continents, Renée has seen both how they are unique to different countries and their universal significance. 

“I would say the idea of getting together with family is pretty much universal; it is just the holiday itself in nature in terms of food and the meaning behind the holiday are different,” Renée said. 

The Moon Festival celebrates the end of the autumn harvest and the traditional foods eaten on this day are moon cake and pomelo (citrus). For the Chinese New Year, the Taiwanese indulge in turnip soup, dumplings, fish and many other dishes. 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For Xintong Li, going home for every break isn’t always an option. Li is a first year graduate student from China studying data science. This Thanksgiving, Li spent time with her friends in Chicago. 

“It was nice to spend the holidays with friends when I wasn’t able to go home,” Li said.

Having seen how the United States celebrates Christmas, Li was fascinated by the notion of gift-giving as opposed to the Chinese tradition of getting red pockets (cash) for the holidays. 

Even though the traditions in Chicago are vastly different compared to China’s, she has grown increasingly drawn to them. She went Black Friday shopping and saw the tree lighting downtown. 

“Even though I’m not with my family during the holidays, I do not feel alone since there are so many things going on in Chicago, and it’s easy to find something you are interested in,” Li said. 

However, because of China’s growing international population, the country is increasingly incorporating more Western traditions into its celebrations. Li Jin, the Chinese and Asian studies programs director and a professor at DePaul, said Christmas has grown popular among the younger generation in China due to the return of college students and family members overseas. In spite of this, the gap between older and younger generations has started to grow as the Chinese government has promoted the public pride of Chinese heritage by celebrating it in the nation’s traditional way. 

Even though China is facing a divide in how to celebrate the holidays, it has succumbed to international pressures. As the Chinese New Year still remains on a separate date than the Gregorian holiday (Jan. 1), it’s still recognized in the Chinese calendar because the government wanted China to connect with the rest of the world. In 1949, the government officially recognized this holiday and its name when the communist party established the new People’s Republic of China. 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As China simultaneously incorporates international holidays while remaining traditional, many Chinese – wherever they are – celebrated in multiple ways. 

“I celebrate both Jan. 1 and Chinese spring festival (Lunar New Year),” Jin said. “On Dec. 31, I get together with my family and friends and have a big meal, have champagne and then we watch fireworks on TV.”

Since Chinese New Year can be celebrated anywhere, DePaul has hosted a gala, which is open to the public, since 2009. 

“We aim to create an inclusive community which celebrates multiculturalism and diversity on our campus,” Jin said, “and build connections between our domestic student body and international students who celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year,”

Like the Chinese, people from all over the world carry a little tradition from home wherever they are. Clare VanSpreybroeck was reminded of home in the Quad Cities when she saw trees decorated with lights and ornaments while exploring Israel and Palestine. VanSpreybroeck is a sophomore at DePaul majoring in international and Arabic studies with a minor in community service studies. VanSpreybroeck was raised Catholic and celebrates the holidays at  home with her family with religious traditions. 

“What I enjoy most about traveling abroad is learning the history of the country or city and its contemporary situation,” VanSpreybroeck said. “I love to explore and meet new people, and I most often travel to countries where I am able to utilize my target language, Arabic.” 

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Through her excursions, she had the chance to experience Shabbat in a reform Synagogue in Jerusalem, while also hearing the Adhan (the Islamic call to prayer) in different Israeli and Palestinian towns. From absorbing the traditions displayed in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Yaffa, VanSpreybroeck was reminded of the beauty of religion and came back to Chicago seeing the holiday season in a new light. 

As Chicago is an international city, many students from around the world are drawn to study here. Therefore, in addition to DePaul, most universities in Chicago have a significant number of international students. 

Benjamin Mugabo is studying interdisciplinary documentary at Columbia College Chicago. Mugabo is from Rwanda and when he doesn’t have the chance to go back home for the holidays, he has a community in Chicago, where he celebrated with a dinner with friends from his country. 

For Mugabo, New Years is the most exciting time of the holiday season in Rwanda as it’s erupting with activities from different concerts playing around his city of Kigali all the way to Jan. 2. 

Kigali Today / YouTube
New Years is a major holiday in Rwanda.

“In the country of a thousand green hills, everyone is happy; they go out and dance or do other activities,” Mugabo said. 

Whether it’s the holiday season or not, tradition always remains everywhere. As cultures celebrate the holidays in many different ways, they all share the value of spreading joy and being part of a warm, welcoming community.

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