Winter lights: Asheville immigrants share holiday traditions

CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS: Pakistan native Ephraim Dean, far right, celebrates an American-style Christmas with his wife, Wendy, second from right, and children, from left, Mikial, Neriya and Attia. Ephraim says he also attends midnight Christmas Eve church services to remind him of the traditions of his childhood. Photo by Cindy Kunst

On a Wednesday night, the rooms sit heavy with the scents and sounds of a crackling fire. Candles flicker amid the greenery, and enticing aromas waft in from the kitchen, where North Carolina native Michele Dohse has cooked up a black-eyed pea soup and a skillet of cornbread.

Meanwhile, her husband, Till, a German-born immigrant who’s taught at UNC Asheville for 29 years, spins stories.

“For me, and especially my parents, Christmas was when we got the most homesick. We lived in New Orleans, so the differences were even more stark.”

In the mid ’60s, his mother was still trying to use real beeswax candles on the tree, as they’d done in Germany. But the warm weather would dry out the branches, and after a few too many tree fires, they had to stop. “The climate was so different, and it was right at the time when those strange silver Christmas trees were all the rage.”

When his parents moved to the U.S. in 1958, Dohse was left with his grandparents in Germany. He came to stay at age 14, and that’s when he began to feel a profound sense of nostalgia around the holidays.

“When I think of German Christmas food, I think of baked goods, cookies with spices,” he says. “When we tried to buy German cookies here, they were made for the American palate: too sweet.”

After dinner, we gather in front of the fire for cookies and sauerkirschwasser, a crisp, dry brandy made from sour cherries. “Spirits are a very important part of the German Christmas, too,” notes Dohse, almost in a whisper.

There were other distinctions as well. “Sometimes you call Santa Kris Kringle here, which is ridiculous: It means ‘Christ child,’” he explains. Traditionally, Santa would come on Dec. 6 to check up on all the children, “but he was a spooky character,” depicted as carrying a switch to punish naughty children. The decorations and the gifts, Kris Kringle’s responsibility, came at Christmas.

The Dohses made it back to Germany several years ago, he says, but it wasn’t the same. “We really miss so much from the past,” he explains. “You didn’t buy gifts then: You made them, and it was about the effort.” The family wasn’t allowed to see the tree or even the room it was in until Christmas Eve. “It’s all become Americanized now, the stores with Santa and the sleigh full of toys. Those traditions hurt when they were taken away.”

All night long

Ephraim Dean immigrated from Taxila, Pakistan, in 1997 to attend Montreat College. A DJ with the popular progressive house trio In Plain Sight, Dean remembers struggling to adjust to the food. “People would always invite me to their dinners, but I didn’t like turkey, and I’d have to bring hot sauce and masalas to pour over everything, because it was just so bland.”

Dean grew up in Pakistan’s small Christian community. Churches there typically hold three Christmas services: morning, evening and midnight. “And it’s normal to go to all three. But there’s always a big meal served afterward, and most Christians in Pakistan come from very poor areas, so a meal is a big deal.” These days, he re-creates many of those traditional dishes, sharing them with his sister and brother.

Dean’s wife, Wendy, is from California, though, so their Christmas traditions are a cultural blend.

“Since my family isn’t here, we used to go out to California every Christmas,” he explains. “They’re all about being in their pajamas at the crack of dawn and opening presents. In Pakistan, we’d come back so late after the midnight service, and everyone would open their presents at 2:30 in the morning!”

Dean still seeks out midnight Christmas Eve services to get a little hint of home. But home is not the country he once knew. In August 2002, the church and hospital where his mother works as a surgeon was bombed, killing three nurses and injuring 23 people.

“Ever since that, a lot has changed,” he says. “The festivities have been dialed back, even in the way we decorate.”

A Muslim Christmas

“As far back as I can remember, we did Christmas, and my parents were Muslim,” says Omar Shaf, the American-born son of Palestinian parents. “Islam recognizes all of the prophets of the three major Abrahamic religions,” he notes, adding, “By the way, I am atheist, but my family’s still Muslim.”

The Muslim calendar is lunar, so their holidays fall on different days in the Western calendar each year. After periods of fasting such as the monthlong Ramadan, they prepare a meal, or “eid,” to celebrate. Eid al-Fitr, which comes after Ramadan, fell in July this year. “With Ramadan, you’re lucky when it comes in the winter, because you’re fasting and the days are shorter,” says Shaf. “It’s different from Lent, where you give up one thing. In Ramadan, you give up everything: As soon as the sun is up, there’s no smoking, no drinking, no eating, nothing.”

When he’s not tossing wings for his customers at the Village Wayside Bar & Grille, Shaf maintains his family’s culinary traditions at home.

“My favorite dish, bazella riz, is chunks of lamb, potatoes, peas and a tomato-based sauce over rice, with tons of garlic and onions.” The ingredients are familiar, but it’s the mix of cumin, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, coriander and nutmeg that makes it memorable.

“My earliest memory of Christmas is sitting under the tree and building the train tracks around the tree. I think I was 6,” he recalls. Shaf’s parents even started putting out cookies and milk for Santa. “I loved it as a kid, and so did they.”

Many people contacted for this story said that this is a hard time to be an immigrant. Some refused to be interviewed. But no matter where you’re from or what holiday you’re celebrating, says Shaf, “The most important sentiment I gained from my parents is that holidays are a time for family and friends, because your friends are the family you choose. But it has to be both.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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