I Won’t be Home for Christmas: Facing the Holidays as an Immigrant

On a chilly December night I noticed that my neighbor Marion Meinen had left his boots, a plate of bread, and a note to Santa in the hallway outside of his door. Meinen, who’s from Aurich, Germany, later told me he was celebrating St. Nicholas Day, and the shoes and bread were part of a tradition he’d brought from home.

Throughout Europe children put their boots outside on St. Nicholas Day, with the hope that the next morning they will be filled with candy.

This will be the first time in four years that Meinen will be home at Christmastime. But many others remain separated from their families. The holidays can be a difficult time for people who can’t travel because of finances, immigration status, or not being able to get time off work.

Here, we share the stories of a few immigrants, and how they cope with being away. For many, it’s about the food they eat, since families often celebrate the holidays by making the most spectacular meals of the year. For others, it’s about what they leave out for Santa, or the kind of music they listen to. Whatever their situation, immigrants seem to find clever ways of keeping their favorite holiday traditions alive.

Karla Martínez bartending at the Astoria Bowl; photo: Miranda Shafer

Karla Martínez, a 29-year-old Puerto Rican bartender, works at a bowling alley in Queens called the Astoria Bowl. It’s a slow Sunday night after a big snowstorm, and for Martínez work is a kind of therapy, one she sorely needs this time of year since she hasn’t gone home for Christmas in four years.

Martínez came to the U.S. in 2004 to attend the University of Iowa when she was 21. These days, she lives in Queens with her six-year-old pit bull, Maximus. When she isn’t tending bar she works towards her Masters degree in media management. For Martínez, the key to staying sane over the holidays is to stay busy. She can’t be in her apartment too long because she gets depressed, and she can’t go outside because it’s too cold.

“You grow up with Christmas being a family time. Without your family, you feel lost, empty…out of place,” she says.

When I asked Martínez what traditions she misses most she says unequivocally parrandas and coquito.

“[A parranda] is kind of like a musical assault,” she says, describing a Puerto Rican tradition that is a cross between caroling and trick-or-treating.

“I miss that noise, the sound of the kids running around, people talking too loud. Back in Iowa it was really rough, it was very hard to find loud people like me,” she adds, laughing.

Coquito is a boozy Puerto Rican take on eggnog, made with coconut milk and rum instead of cream and whiskey. “You are not Puerto Rican if you don’t drink this,” she says. Martínez was kind enough to share her coquito recipe below.

This year, she’s planning her own parranda, and listens to Spanish Christmas music every day in an effort to get into the spirit. Still, it’s no replacement for Navidad with her family at home.

Nathan Brujis; photo: Miranda Shafer

Nathan Brujis, a 42-year-old Peruvian immigrant, came to the U.S. in 1988 to study genetic engineering. He stays connected to his family through social media.

“We [use] FaceTime and we have a group texting sessions, and that’s how we all cope,” Brujis says.

During his first decade in the U.S., he was occasionally able to visit Peru over the holidays. More recently he’s opted to stay home, choosing instead to build new traditions with his two sons. But there are some things that are irreplaceable.

“There is a lot of food that comes with the holidays that I miss: chorizos, parrillada.
We had Christmas Turkey, there was no Thanksgiving so the turkey was on Christmas,” he says.

Brujis is Jewish, and says that Jewish holidays are not commonly celebrated among Peruvians. But here in New York, he gets to bring that part of his cultural heritage to his new family.

He also shares a Peruvian New Years tradition with his two kids. At the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve they each eat 12 grapes, to bring them good luck throughout the year.

Jennifer Tierney; photo: Miranda Shafer

Jennifer Tierney, a 42-year-old Irish immigrant, came to the U.S. almost two decades ago. Back then there was no such thing as FaceTime or Skype, which has since eased the burden of living abroad.  “I used to write long letters and then wait a week for a reply. It’s hard to believe that was only 19 years ago,” Tierney says.

She left Ireland to escape the struggling economy, and because she won the green card lottery, (the U.S. government offers 55,000 visas annually through a lottery to people from countries with low rates of immigration). In Ireland she was only able to find work as a tollbooth operator despite having a bachelors and a graduate degree in equine science. After immigrating, Tierney was able to get a job in her field working for a horse transport company.

When she first arrived in the U.S. she tried to go home every Christmas, but soon after she started to put down roots. She met her husband on her first day on the job and they married in 1999 and now have two children. In 2004 Tierney’s mother died and Jennifer stopped flying home for Christmas.

This Christmas, she’s staying in New York where she’ll celebrate with her family.

Following the Irish tradition, her family will light a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, the candle is supposed “to light the way for Mary and Joseph on their way to the stable.” They will also leave Santa a ham sandwich and a bottle of Guinness.

Fiona McCann; photo: Fiona McCann

Fiona McCann, 39, moved to this country from Ireland three years ago after falling in love with her now husband, an American from Portland, Oregon. Since then she’s only been home once for the holidays. McCann is one of three daughters, none of whom live in Ireland any longer, and McCann’s Facebook page is studded with homesick updates from friends and family who are living abroad.

When asked what she misses most about spending the holidays with her parents she says, “I miss the lights on Grafton Street. I miss going to Mac’s, our local pub, with my sisters on Christmas Eve. I miss my mother’s brandy butter—so addictive we used to eat it with a spoon when we were little. I miss fighting over who got the caramel barrels in the box of Roses Candy. I miss coming home from Mac’s to my parents and to my grandmother sipping sherry from a tea cup,” she says, longingly.

When she can’t visit her family she uses FaceTime or Skype to talk with them.

This year, she’ll spend Christmas in Portland with her daughter, Finn.  She hopes carry on traditions, such as making brandy butter and putting a candle in the window.

“The youngest member of the household lights [the candle in the window]. It’s supposed to welcome travelers over the winter’s night,” she says. Her youngest sister (who used to light the family candle in Ireland) now lives in Australia, but Fiona will continue this tradition with her new family.

Karla’s Coquito Recipe

    5 egg yolks
    3 tsp of sugar
    1 tsp of vanilla extract
    1 can of coconut cream
    2 cups of white rum
    3 cans of evaporated milk
    1/2 cup of regular milk

Put the ingredients in the blender, and mix until frothy. Makes 12 servings.

Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.

AboutMiranda Shafer
Miranda Shafer is a media studies graduate student at the New School. She has worked for WNYC as a production assistant for Selected Shorts and as a producer for the series "Talk to Me." She likes hot media and cold weather.