All Esessien Offiong wants for Christmas — or at least for his Nigerian Christmas stew — is antelope. But the stores in his Laurel, Md., neighborhood don’t carry African game, so Offiong and his family will do what they do every year: Wing it.
“We have learned that goat meat is a pretty good substitute for antelope,” Offiong, a federal pension agency staffer, said with a Santa-worthy laugh. “You have to improvise when you are far from home, but we find ways to have a very Nigerian Christmas.”
Such are the holidays in Washington, where one in five residents are foreign born and immigrants and expats improvise, import and adapt Christmas traditions from all over the world. Even in the age of Internet shopping, global trade and Pier 1, decking the halls can be an effort if you want to deck them with straw “yule goats” (Swedes), defecating manger shepherds (Catalonians) or bamboo-and-tissue parol stars (Filipinos).
“People come in every year asking for them,” said Emma Bioc, co-owner of Manila Mart, a Filipino grocery in Beltsville, Md. She tries to lay in a few locally made parol stars each December, but her usual supplier hadn’t been around this year.
There’s better news for local Filipinos with visions of puto bumbong dancing in their heads: Come Dec. 24th, Bioc can guarantee a supply of the traditional Christmas cakes of purple rice and coconut. It’s a welcome treat, especially for those finishing Simbang Gabi, the nine-day series of evening masses leading up to Christmas Eve, held at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oxon Hill and other area churches. “We always sell all we can make.”
For Icelander Fridrik Jonsson, the annual ingredient hunt begins with a search for rock ptarmigan, a game bird more common to the mountains of the Arctic than the aisles of a Safeway.
Icelanders like to roast or grill their ptarmigan or, sometimes, simmer the quail-size bird in a creamy roux. When they can get it, that is.
“It’s not easy to find,” said Jonsson, who works at the World Bank. “You have to know a guy who knows a guy. It helps to have diplomatic status.”
Some years, when no one has slipped a few birds into the diplomatic pouch and online suppliers are too expensive, Jonsson has made do with other game meat.
Such as reindeer, which is another head-scratcher for local butchers. He doesn’t even ask for whale meat.
“In an emergency, I have used venison,” Jonsson said. “I’d like to try bison.”
This year, he’s in luck, with several pounds of bird in his Bethesda, Md. freezer (the bounty of a fall visit to Reykjavik). That leaves him and his wife free to organize the small presents their 8-year-old son expects on each of the 13 nights he puts his shoe on the windowsill of his Bethesda bedroom.
It’s an ancient Icelandic custom that mischievous jolasveinar, or yule lads, will leave a trinket in the shoe of a nice child (or a potato for a naughty one). A few of the 13 Santa-like characters also made an appearance at the Jolaball, an annual Christmas fete hosted by the Icelandic Association of Washington that rocked Bethesda’s Emmanuel Lutheran Church on Saturday.
“It’s important to us to maintain our national idiosyncrasies,” Jonsson said. “It’s very easy in Washington to do that. The whole world is here.”
For idiosyncratic holiday traditions, it’s hard to beat the Catalan-born residents who bring out a little crouching shepherd, called a caganer, for their Washington manger scenes. The traditional carved or ceramic figurines, sold in the markets outside the Barcelona Cathedral, are shown doing something a Crate & Barrel ornament never would: defecating.
“You can’t get those anywhere around here,” said Mar Tarres of Herndon, Va., who works for an international telecommunication company in Washington. (There is one online vendor, but the website might not be safe for work.) “I stock up on those when I’m in Spain.”
Tarres helped organize the annual Christmas celebration of Washington area Catalonians this month in Rockville. Several dozen families gathered in a party room for another holiday ritual: children whacking the gifts out of a caga tio, the Catalan pooping log.
“This is very different,” Tarres said. “We come from a very traditional Catholic country, but we do have a lot of these pagan traditions. They are very dear to us.”
The caga tio is a hollowed log, sometimes real and sometimes papier-mache, with a happy face painted on one end. Grown-ups “feed” the log small packages before the ceremony, and then the kids descend with glee, pounding it until the gifts are, uh, delivered from the other end.
For the accompanying Christmas feast, many families order Spanish ham and bonbons from La Tienda, an online vendor based in Williamsburg, Va. But many will make a pilgrimage to Rodman’s, the pharmacy-turned-gourmet grocery in the District of Columbia’s Friendship Heights area that has become holiday central for expat communities in the Washington region.
At this time of year, the Rodman’s parking lot is crammed with diplomatic license plates, its aisles are a babble of languages and the shelves are crowded with seasonal specialties from many a time zone: haggis from Scotland, Kipling mincemeat pies from Britain, Sachertorte from Vienna, Brazilian panettone, Spanish turron.
“People love to come and find these old friends from home, especially at this time of year,” said Roy Rodman, who begins placing his overseas orders six months in advance. “Our sales double.”
Washington’s Coptic Christians don’t find it hard to stock up on holiday provisions: They celebrate Christmas with a 40-day fast. Some Copts, most of whom come to the area from Egypt, eat no food during the day; others cut out all meat and dairy products.
“You eat a lot of french fries,” said Michael Meunier, an information technology specialist in Fairfax County who was born in Egypt. “At night, you can have a little wine. At least, I do.”
At the end comes a massive feast in the wee hours after midnight mass Jan. 7, the traditional Coptic Christmas.
“It may be 3 a.m., but it’s the biggest meal you want to see,” said Meunier. “You can’t wait for the next day.”
Copts celebrate on Dec. 25th as well, Meunier said. On both Christmas Eves, his church, St. Mark Coptic Orthodox in Fairfax, Va., will hold mass in English, Arabic and Coptic. On both mornings, kids open presents.
“We tell our children, ‘You are lucky. You get two Christmases,’ “ Meunier said. “The tree stays up and the gifts come back.”
Cecilia Browning’s children get no presents until they’ve eaten at least a bite of lutefisk, the gelatinous, pungent, lye-soaked whitefish that has come to mean Christmas to Swedes around the world. (Norwegians spell it lutefisk; Danes spell it ludfisk.)
Browning, who runs the House of Sweden cultural center in Washington’s Georgetown area, orders her fish online. But there are abundant local shopping options for Swedish expats; Ikea sometimes carries Christmas hams. And Klaradal shop in Olney, Md. does a brisk December business in vanilla sugar, Marabou mork choklad and the spices for glögg, the Scandinavian winter drink of mulled wine and brandy.
“I’ve had little old Swedish ladies literally cry when they come into my shop,” said Sue Kopperman.
But for Washington Swedes, the key December import isn’t foodstuffs, it’s girl singers.
Every year, Kerstin Hendrickson rounds up Swedish au pairs in the region and trains 30 or 40 of them as a roving troupe of white-robed St. Lucia singers. The young women visit churches, schools and the Swedish Embassy to perform the medieval procession commemorating the burning of the future saint by ancient Romans. One of the girls, representing Lucia, wears a crown of candles.
“We do eight or 10 Lucias every year,” said the Swedish-born Hendrickson, who lives in Beltsville and works as a nurse in Annapolis, Md. They’ve already performed this year for the Swedish ambassador and a Swedish Christmas bazaar. “I don’t know who enjoys it more — the older people or the girls who are homesick. They are thrilled to learn there is such a big Lucia in Washington.”
But the expats are still far from their lands of origin. Jonsson reflected on the one custom he and his fellow Icelanders have not been able to import. At home, families shake the winter skies with fireworks on New Year’s Eve. In Bethesda, he doesn’t dare.
“You do not mess with the Montgomery County police,” he said, “even with diplomatic immunity.”