Ruta Zaharias had only ever seen snow and Santa Claus on television.
So when she first saw the snowflakes falling in Rossland last month, the Eritrean mother of two trembled with fear.
“First I was afraid,” she laughed. “But now it’s good, it’s nice.”
This is the family’s first Christmas in Canada – this time last year the three were living in a refugee camp in Egypt after fleeing the African country when her husband disappeared a few years ago.
For her first Rehus Beal Ledeat (Merry Christmas) in a new country she brings her traditions, which include decorating a Christmas tree, new clothes as gifts for her young sons, and Zgni, a customary yuletide meal.
But this first year outside the community of her Orthodox Christian religion had Ruta misty-eyed as she recalled past celebrations which centred around church services and family unity.
“(We) would come back from church, my mother and brother, and get together to eat lunch,” said Ruta, now in her third month of learning English. “Then later we would go to another nice place to (visit with friends and family).”
A few days ahead of Christmas in Eritrea, the streets are crowded with people wanting to buy animals such as sheep, goat, cow or hen.
Christmas morning in Asmara (the Eritrean capital and city Ruta hails from) Christian families typically go to church and celebrate the Divine Liturgy, a Eucharist service that involves reading of Scriptures and the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
Mothers and daughters then bake Injera, a thin spongy sour bread and cook traditional Zgni, a hot meat stew.
Prayer is said by a father, or the eldest member of the family, before the Christmas feast. Later, to help digest the meal, Eritreans stroll through the streets and meet with friends and traditionally end the day in a coffee house to sip Myies (a liquor made from fermented honey) or cappuccino.
For her first white Christmas in Canada, Ruta’s sponsor helped with tree decorating and introduced the family to the North American tradition of turkey and the fixings.
“I tried (turkey) but we didn’t like it,” she laughed. “Mostly (in Eritrea) we use sheep. But if it’s expensive then we use goats most often (or) if it’s a small family, then chicken,” Ruta added. “I (will cook) chicken (this Christmas) because we are only three people.”
Though she misses her church community since arriving in Rossland this summer, Ruta and her sons Yonathan and Eyobed, are looking forward to their first Christmas in Rossland.
“We are excited, happy for Christmas,” she said. “And I want to say thank you very, very much to my group (West Kootenay Friends of Refugees).”
Elsewhere in the Alpine City, the San-Latt family is readying to celebrate their second Christmas in Canada.
Originally from Burma (Myanmar), Lun Lun, Aung Ko Ko and their toddler Samuel had been living in a refugee camp in Malaysia, when they were sponsored by the Rossland group 24 months ago.
They welcomed a second son Michael David last March.
“It never snows in my country, but we watched (skiing) on TV,” says Lun Lun.
“My boys like snow and (this year) we will try cross country skiing.”
As Christmas nears, the young mother has already decorated their home like her family did in Burma – tinsel, angels, balloons and lights, but no tree or Saint Nick.
There is no Burmese salutation for Christmas, says Lun Lun, adding with a big smile, “we just say Merry Christmas to everyone.”
She is Christian and observes the day as her family did in their native country – with prayer and mass.
“We would have church in the morning then walk (home) together,” she shared. “We would exchange presents, (like) shoes, clothes and hand fans, then all the people in town would cook rice and eat together.”
Aung Ko Ko is Buddhist, and with a wide grin, says he enjoys Christmas because of the special currys and traditional meals prepared for the holiday.
“Homemade rice, chicken and cooking gravy curry,” Aung Ko Ko explained. “Everybody (would) come and eat, (people) walking by (are invited) in to eat. We were all happy (with all the food).”
This year, Lun Lun is planning on cooking a bird, but with a southeast Asian twist.
“I am making a family dinner, and we are eating turkey,” she said. “I will cook soup, but it will be hot and spicy, that is our favourite food.”
And like many Canadian households, Christmas is the San-Latt home is all about the children.
“The first time I saw Santa I was so happy,” Lun Lun chuckled. “And my boys are so happy this Christmas, they see Santa and (know) they will get presents.”