Welcoming Refugees at Christmas: A Few Tips


Last week I gave you 30 ideas for welcoming refugees during the holidays. This week I want to talk through some important issues that you should be aware of if you plan to adopt one of those ideas for welcoming refugees at Christmas. This is not an exhaustive list of tips, by any means, but my hope is that they will get you thinking in a sensitive and nuanced way as you incorporate refugees and immigrants into your Christmas traditions.

Cultural Versus Religious Traditions

Celebrating Jesus's birth at the beginning of winter, the holiday we now know as Christmas, was established by the Church as a religious alternative to the pagan celebration of winter solstice. While Christians still recognize the birth of Jesus as the primary reason for the Christmas holiday, many North Americans and Europeans who are not Christians also celebrate Christmas. Christmas has become a cultural holiday - a season to spend time with family and exchange gifts even if the historical birth of Jesus holds no significance for you.

Most refugees who have recently arrived in the US will probably be completely oblivious to the distinction between cultural and religious celebrations of Christmas or they will be very confused by it. Refugees who come from predominantly Christian countries may know Christmas only as a religious holiday. Traditions like writing letters to Santa, singing songs about him, and even exchanging gifts may be foreign to them. Celebrating Christmas together may be a great opportunity to learn about the Christmas traditions of the Church in other parts of the world and to be reminded that Christmas is far more meaningful that the shallow commercialism that Western countries portray.

Refugees of other faiths who do not celebrate Christmas will also be confused by the dual nature of Christmas. For them most holidays are strictly religious in nature, except perhaps for independence day celebrations.  Make sure that you explain the two different ways that people celebrate Christmas. You can (and should!) explain why, as a Christian, celebrating the birth of Jesus is so important to you and invite them to participate in Christian traditions (i.e. Christmas Eve candlelight service, advent, Christmas carols, etc.). However, you should also explain the cultural aspects of Christmas, and make it clear that they can choose to join in the celebration of Christmas as new residents of America without jeopardizing their faithfulness to their own religion. However, never pressure them to participate if they feel uncomfortable.

The Importance of Hospitality

For most of the cultures from which refugees come hospitality is an important value. Utilize the holiday season as an opportunity to practice hospitality with your refugee and immigrant friends. Invite them over for a meal so that they can spend time in your home and know how much you care about them. Make note that in many cultures it is not polite to accept an invitation the first time it is offered, so you may have to be a little more persistent than you are used to. If they give a specific excuse for why they cannot come, that is usually a sign that they are not just being polite.

Avoid Giving Gifts as a General Rule

Refugees, especially during their first few years in the US, usually don't have much wiggle room in their budget and have to spend the vast majority of their income on necessities (i.e. groceries, rent, utilities, etc.). Chances are high that you are much better off financially than your refugee or immigrant friends. Giving gifts at Christmas can highlight the financial distance between you and your friends, and has the potential to damage your friendship. The gifts you want to give - a few small toys or books, clothes, or household items - may not seem extravagant to you, but giving them will make your refugee friends feel obligated to reciprocate, which is not what you want to do, especially if they do not celebrate Christmas or do not give gifts as a part of their Christmas traditions. You can show you care by extending hospitality as I mentioned above, or by inviting them to participate in one of the 30 ideas I wrote about last week. It can also be appropriate to give a simple gift of dried fruit, nuts, or something you have baked yourself.

Do Your Research

I have not been friends with refugees from all the countries your refugee friends may be from, so I do not have specifics about each of their cultures to share with you. While cultures sometimes have broad similarities, they can also be extremely different. When it comes to planning activities and welcoming refugees at Christmas, make sure to do your research so that you don't unintentionally offend your friends. If you can't find the answer to a question you may have, ask your refugee or immigrant friend directly. They will probably be very appreciative of your desire to be respectful and sensitive of their culture and/or religion.

Here is a story from my own experience that may give you a better idea of the kinds of things you should be careful of. On an evening in December several years ago, my sister and I were visiting a Somali refugee family and helping the children with their homework. When we were done we unpacked a children's nativity scene and and coloring pages of Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus so that we could tell the Christmas story. Suddenly the children's mother became uncomfortable and said that the kids didn't want to color or play with the nativity scene. She didn't yet speak a lot of English, so we couldn't understand why she was opposed to the nativity scene and coloring pages. When we went home later that evening, we did some research to try and figure out what the problem was. We realized that Muslims don't believe it is appropriate to show the faces of the prophets (Jesus is a prophet in the Qur'an), so she was offended that baby Jesus's face was shown on the coloring page and the nativity figurine.

I hope that these tips are helpful as you find ways of welcoming refugees at Christmastime. While the holiday season is a wonderful time to strengthen your friendships with your refugee and immigrant friends and to learn more about each other's cultures and traditions, a sensitive, respectful, and nuanced approach is very important. If you have any more specific tips or stories to share from your own experience of welcoming refugees at Christmas, please let us know in the comments!