Iowa’s melting pot of traditions

Residents tell of heritages from many cultures that create a holiday season rich in memories.

The holidays are a time of holding tight to tradition, whether it’s lovingly displaying a faded ornament made by a kindergartner now grown to manhood or crowding in front of the television to watch “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Many of the rituals that guide this season began with our families. Others entered our lives through marriage, through the pleading of our children, sometimes through a loss that made the old ways of doing things a source of pain rather than joy.

No two Iowa families celebrate the holidays exactly the same way. For local residents from other countries and other cultures, those differences are even more pronounced. Even if their traditions are unknown to us, though, the reverence with which they uphold them is very familiar. There are many ways of celebrating this time of year. Here are just a few of them.

Christy Karthan > Karthan grew up in Greece, emigrating right after high school. She and her husband, James, who is also of Greek descent, have three adult children and four grandchildren. Childhood holiday memories: I grew up right after the war. The night before Christmas as children, we’d get together and go door to door and sing Christmas songs. Invariably the people in the home would give us money. On Christmas Day, we went to church, then we’d come home, have a meal and sing songs. My mom baked baklava and a lot of special sweets that she would not make the rest of the year. In Greece, Santa, Saint Basil, came on New Year’s Day. When I was little, he brought me a doll.

What are your holidays like now? > Most of our traditions are more or less like Western ones. Santa comes for the little children. We open gifts and decorate a Christmas tree. My son when he comes home, he always looks on the tree for the little itsy bitsy Santa we used to put on the tree when he was little.

How does your culture influence your celebration? > I bake sweets that are a little different like baklava and kourabiethes, white round cookies with powdered sugar on top. And melomakarona, which are like macaroons dipped in hot honey with crumbled nuts over it. Christmas is about the only time I make these treats.

Mary Goose > Half Meskwaki and half Chippewa, Goose works at Drake University in food service and catering. She grew up mainly in Des Moines and has also lived on the Meskwaki settlement in Tama. She has a son, Lucas. Childhood holiday memories: Growing up, we got presents and did the whole gift-giving thing. I think a couple of times we had a tree. We weren’t that much into celebrating Christmas, it’s not part of our religion. It was just kind of like a holiday we had to work around. When we lived on the settlement, they used to have a Christmas program at the community center or school and we’d go to that. Mostly it was a kids program. That was like something the non-native culture brought in there and it became part of our culture.

What are your holidays like now? > I just give presents to my closest family members – my son, sister, aunt and mother. I’ll probably get together with them on Christmas Day. Usually we get a turkey from work so it’s something we’ll have just because we get a turkey. The closest I’ve come to ever having a Christmas tree is doing one of those little living Christmas trees you get at Target that are less than a foot tall with the little ornaments stuck on there. My son he’s kind of getting older. It was more exciting when he was little. Probably my favorite thing is just the fact that we had two or three weeks together without him having to go to school.

Dawn Martinez Oropeza > She was born to a Mexican Catholic father and Jewish mother. The arts education community programs coordinator for the Iowa Arts Council, she and husband Juan Carlos have two children. Childhood holiday memories: We would spend Christmas Eve at my Jewish grandmother’s house and have Jewish food. We’d go to church in the morning, then do Christmas with Santa Claus. We didn’t really have Mexican Christmas traditions. Dad did more of a standard American Catholic celebration. We had a Christmas tree, wrote letters to Santa and had presents. We ate turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, and hung our stockings on the fireplace.

What are your holidays like now? > My husband is from Mexico, and since I’ve been married to him, we’ve incorporated more Mexican traditions. In Mexico, starting December 16, they have Las Posadas. They re-enact Jesus’ birth and go house to house asking to be let in. When someone lets you in, they serve tamales and hot chocolate. In Mexico they do this like every night up until Christmas Eve. Because we just moved here last year, instead of posadas, my kids had a cookie party on the 15th. We’ll do midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

How does your culture influence your celebration? > My family in Des Moines all make tamales and bunuelos – fried tortillas with cinnamon and sugar. My mother-in-law comes from Mexico every year at the end of December. She brings tamales and Rosca de Reyes for Three Kings’ Day. Three Kings’ Day is on January 6 and is a celebration of the three Kings who came to see Jesus. The night before, children write a letter to the three Kings and put the letter in their shoes. The next day, they wake up and find gifts from the Kings. Rosca de Reyes is a big oval wreath made out of egg bread with dried fruit on top for decoration. Baked inside the bread are little baby Jesuses. If you get a piece of bread with a baby Jesus in it, you have to have a party for everyone on Dia de la Candelaria on February 2.

What influence has your mom had on your holiday traditions? > My mom passed away this year. Her birthday is the 12th, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and this year we started a tradition by going to get our tree on her birthday. We’re also doing Hanukkah this year. My kids have never celebrated Hanukkah.

Abid Talic > Talic grew up in Bosnia as a Muslim and moved to America in 1995. The general manager of the Spring Hill Suites in West Des Moines and a graduate student at Drake University in public administration, Talic received his American citizenship in September 2005. He and his wife, Ramiza, have two children. Childhood holiday memories: One of the two main religious celebrations for Bosnian Muslims is on December 30 this year. It’s called Kurban Bajram and it celebrates when God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son to him and instead sent a young ram to Abraham to save his son. It’s what Christmas is for you guys here. It’s a very festive time with three days of celebration. What we do basically is have community gatherings. Traditionally on that same day, some members of the community will go to a farm and sacrifice one of the three allowed farm animals such as a cow, goat or ram. They will take this meat to poor families, friends, neighbors, anyone willing to accept it, to show mercy and love to other members of the community.

What are your holidays like now? > We will not do anything on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. On December 30, the first thing in the morning we’ll all go in and pray. Then, I’ll go to visit my mom, dad, my brothers, all the people I’m connected with, to have coffee at their house and cake and to wish them “bajram mubarak olsun.” It basically means “Happy Bajram”. Then as the oldest son, I’ll invite all their families to visit my house. We’ll spend the first day of Bajram at my house, the second day at my brother’s house and the third day we all go to Mom’s and Dad’s. We also call family in Bosnia any time there’s any type of holiday. We will do traditional Bosnian food and traditional American food. On the night of December 30 at 7 Flags, there will be a celebration for the entire Bosnian community in Des Moines with 2,000-3,000 people.

Do you decorate? > No, but something very important is the house has to be perfectly clean. We have to start at least a week before. Everything needs to be put together in as nice a way as possible. There are also certain types of sweets that have to be made: baklava and torta hurmasice.

Francis Chan > Chan grew up in southern Sudan in a Catholic family and moved to the United States in 2000. He is a case manager for the Bureau of Refugee Services. He married Regina last year. He has four daughters. Childhood holiday memories: When I was a young boy in Sudan, the end of the month of November is when everybody started preparing for Christmas. This is the time when children try their best to have a good relationship with their parents so they can have new clothes. Secondly, people will begin making arrangements for the parties. We celebrate Christmas starting the 23rd to the first day of January, and every day there is a party from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. or 6 a.m. in the morning. For four days, there is no work at all. Even the public offices are closed. On the 24th, there will be marching starting from midnight until morning. A very huge group joins together and there is drumming, dancing and a lot of singing. On the 25th and 26th, the children move from one child’s house to another and they give you candy. On the 27th and 28th, the women move around to each other’s houses. On Christmas in Sudan, it is important for people to eat together as a sign of unity. For a family that is rich, they have to kill a cow or sheep. If you were from a poor family, you got fresh fish from the river. We also ate a special cake done a month before. It’s like fruit cake here. I miss it.

Describe your first Christmas here: > I came here by myself with four of my daughters. My oldest daughter was 9 when we came. The first Christmas, a friend of mine, a priest, took me out with the children to see how people celebrate Christmas in the city of Des Moines. It has become a tradition. Every Christmas on the 23rd, I take my children around and look at the lights.

How does your culture influence your celebration? > We have special clothes we wear. My children, they don’t like it. Some of them accept it, some say it’s snowing today or it’s too cold. On the 26th, I try by all means to go visit some friends in the evening after my working hours.

The Rev. Gunsoo Jung > He is a native of Korea who moved to the United States in 1993. Pastor of Korean United Methodist Church in Des Moines, he and his wife, Gwi Jeong Jung, have four children. Childhood holiday memories: The most important holidays in Korea are Seolnal (New Year’s Day in lunar) and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day). They are bigger holidays in Korea than Christmas. People get together at their parents’ house or their elder brother’s and talk about what they did last year and what they are going to do this coming year. People try not to sleep on New Year’s Eve because if they sleep at night, they believe their eyebrows will turn gray. Children wear their new clothes, Seolbim, early in the morning and do a memorial service, Charye. People have Ddeukguk, rice cake soup. People believe that if they eat Ddeukguk on New Year’s Day, they will get one year older. They go to their ancestors’ tombs in the nearby mountain. They offer some food and fruits and make bows to their ancestors. Then they visit and bow to their relatives or seniors in the neighborhood.

What are your holidays like now? > My family celebrates Christmas like Americans. But we celebrate Seolnal like other Koreans in Korea. We have a service of New Year in my house with my family and in our church with our church members. We make Ddeukguk and other side dishes. I bow to my father and mother and my kids make bows (SaeBae – bows on the New Year’s Day) to us (my wife and me) and their grandparents. Then we give them some money – Saebaedon – and tell them Deokdam. That’s a wish for good luck for the year.