Holidays without roots: experiencing Christmas as an immigrant

Regardless of circumstances and culture, immigrants share similar experiences as we navigate the challenges of living away from our families. Sometimes we join other family members, forcibly or voluntarily, who have paved the way to a better or safer life in a different country, and sometimes we transplant our family roots onto a completely new and unknown soil without any family connections whatsoever. I am in this last category, and as the holidays quickly approach, I am here to talk about something that many immigrants experience: loneliness.

Over the 11 years that we have been in Canada, we have been blessed by wonderful friends who regard us as part of their families, and we rarely feel unrooted. However, the holidays, any holiday really, are when we feel that pang of loneliness most acutely as our friends travel to see family or have many family functions to attend. I will never forget, for instance, our first Christmas here. Newly arrived, we were alone over the Christmas holidays. It was extremely cold outside, but the sun was shining beautifully and tricked us into thinking that we could go for a walk. As we stepped outside and started walking, we realized that no one was on the streets. Stores were closed, families were together around the fireplace (as we could see when we walked past a house with the curtains open), and there were no cars driving by. We were the only ones walking aimlessly, with our noses running because of the severe cold weather. I could break a strand of my hair in two because even my hair froze. When we returned to our basement apartment, we saw that it was -24 outside. It was December 24th. We can also count on being alone almost every Thanksgiving Day.

At one point, all of us immigrants in our circle of friends got together on holidays to create that atmosphere of coziness and connection we all crave. Over the years, however, those families who have welcomed us have been joined by other family members who also decided to immigrate, and our get-togethers have become more sparse. And we feel this sorely, especially because our families have no plans to join us in Canada, not a single one of them. I am truly happy for these friends because, honestly, there is something about family that we can’t really find in friendships, even the best ones. And I’m not regarding family as this perfect, fairytale group of people who always have your best interests in mind. I am decidedly not making light of trauma perpetrated by family. Oh, no. I have struggled with my fair share of that, and so it is telling that, despite this trauma, I still believe in the ancestral connection and rootedness that family can provide.

As time goes by and I learn more about myself and my heart, I have come to realize that my family (especially now that there are six of us) will spend a lot of holidays alone, without that wonderful, warm interpersonal connection that can happen outside our immediate family circle, even when your uncle cracks that same old joke at a family dinner. And so over the years I have developed a few traditions of our own, such as making pancakes on Christmas morning, and cooking a somewhat fancy Christmas dinner on the 24th, even if the six of us are the only people around the table. This is the third year I am giving my children matching Christmas pajamas, because I want to show them, visually, as they play together wearing similar garb, that they are peas in the same pod, and that this connection matters.

Davi and our children wearing matching pajamas on Christmas morning last year.

I also fill my house with objects, sounds and smells from or about Brazil, so that they feel that the part of them that tells them they’re also from someplace else in the world is nourished, important and respected. I sometimes wonder how we ended up with four first-generation Brazilian-Canadian children, and if we’re doing an OK job of merging traditions — I want to respect the culture into which they were born while keeping alive the connection to my homeland. Because they’re from there too. Friends, let me tell you: this is SO hard! A lot of musing over identity occurs in my head, and I will share some of those reflections at some point.

Sadly, newly concocted traditions can only fill certain gaps. Sometimes the feeling that we have severed our roots at a great cost prevails. This doesn’t work for everyone, of course, but if loneliness or that feeling that I don’t really belong anywhere hits me particularly hard over Christmas — it can be the hardest holiday of them all — I remember that Mary and Joseph were also alone on the day they welcomed Jesus into the world and into their family. I remember that even though they had returned to Joseph’s ancestral homeland, that was not the place they called home. They were outsiders surrounded by no other human presence aside from themselves. There is something so comforting in the thought that even the holy family faced loneliness at some point, that they too know what it feels like to celebrate important days surrounded by only the immediate family they had been blessed with.

We know that this feeling is not ours alone, so we have also hosted some celebrations at our place for those of us feeling unrooted or away from family. A few years ago, for instance, I invited all my graduate student mates to a Christmas potluck at my place. My house was filled with people who couldn’t be with their loved ones on December 24th. It was wonderfuI how we were able to create connection out of our shared unrootedness. And a couple years ago, a family with eight children dined with us on Christmas Eve. But sometimes, such as when one of my babies was really little and I was awfully exhausted, I didn’t have it in me to be the hostess. A lot of the time I still don’t. I just want someone to envelop my little village in a cloak of inclusion and love. For whatever reason, you might know someone not from your area or country who is in the same situation. So my plea is this: if you know an immigrant family or person who is going to be alone over the holidays, regardless of what or if they celebrate, consider inviting them over for a meal. I can tell you from experience that this kind action has the power to change an entire season for those of us trying to establish roots where our lineage has zero ancestral footprint.

For those of you who have invited me and my family into your house for a meal at any point, especially a holiday, thank you. So much. You have no idea, and I can’t express it with words, how much your kindness has nourished all of our souls. You have enriched the heterogeneous soil where we have planted our little people, and for this you have our unwavering gratitude. Maybe I can fill your tummy with rice and beans? 😉

Happy holidays, everyone! And if you celebrate and believe in Jesus’ birth, Merry Christmas!

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