Mount Faculty Share International Holiday Traditions

NEWBURGH – Lights twinkle, store shelves are stocked, and no matter the genre, Christmas music is on every radio station.

The holidays are here, and members of the Mount Saint Mary College community bring many cultural traditions to the holiday table, inspired by customs from around the world.

As she lit her Chanukkah menorah last week, Associate Professor of Psychology Yasmine Kalkstein reminisced about celebrating the Jewish holiday in Israel. Kalkstein spent the 2017-2018 academic year in Israel with her family on a Fulbright scholarship.

She noted that Chanukkah is a smaller holiday in Israel – more exciting to the children is the winter break that accompanies it. Kalkstein and her family spent the holidays in the Galilee region. Kalkstein explained that the area remains both very spiritual and car-free, and that every house had a menorah lit outside.

“The town glowed,” she noted.

Another memory of Chanukkah in Israel was making sufganiyot, a confection similar to jelly donuts. Eating food fried in oil is traditional for the Jewish holiday, Kalkstein explained, as part of the holiday commemorates a miracle of oil.

Mount Saint Mary College professor Yasmine Kalkstein.
Mount Saint Mary College professor Yasmine Kalkstein.

Being in the very place where the history of the holiday was established made the celebration even more impactful for Kalkstein and her family.

“What is most special about Chanukkah in Israel is that it celebrates a holiday of freedom from persecution, and to see it celebrated in the land of Israel, where the original story took place, is very special,” she said.

For Catholics in Venezuela, Christmas is a time of family and faith, says Mount Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Victor Azuaje, who moved to the United States in 1998.
The main Christmas meal, served at midnight on December 24, is “the most important thing,” he explained.

The meal centers around hallacas, a calzone-like “pocket” of cornmeal filled with chicken, pork or other meats, onions, bell peppers, green olives, and seasonings. Hallacas are large, so one or two could make up an entire dinner, said Azuaje.

Families exchange presents after the late meal, explained Azuaje. But instead of writing a letter to Santa Claus, children in Venezuela ask Baby Jesus for their gifts. The Nativity holds a prominent place in the home during the holiday season, but it isn’t until midnight on Christmas Eve that Baby Jesus is placed in the manger.

For about a week before December 24, early morning Masses are held. At Christmas Mass, attendees wear new clothes.

“It’s a very special night. You’re going to wear something new,” Azuaje explained.
Suparna Bhalla, a Mount associate professor of Biology who originally hailed from India, said the Hindu tradition of Diwali (the Festival of Lights) is in some ways a combination of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Falling between mid-October and mid-November each year, the Festival of Lights lives up to its name – fireworks fill the sky and Hindu homes are decorated with lights.

Gifts are given between families, including dried apricots, almonds, cashews, figs, and walnuts.

“It is the celebration of the triumph of good over evil,” she explained. “In Indian mythology, it is welcoming the gods back to their hometown.”

The Mount has cherished holiday traditions of its own. Since 1974, a choir of Mount Saint Mary College students and staff has presented the Christmas Vespers music program, which took place this year on December 2.

Each year, students look forward to the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony which includes a blessing by Campus Ministry chaplain Fr. Gregoire Fluet. The Mount also helps families in need with the Giving Tree, a collaboration between Campus Ministry and the entire campus. Tags hang like ornaments from the tree, and written on the back of each is a gift request from an underprivileged child. The Mount community donates the requested items, creating happy holiday memories for local Newburgh children. This year, Fr. Fluet estimates that the Mount community donated more than 1,000 gifts.

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