By Alli Lorensen

As sleigh bells ring and twinkling lights adorn buildings, Lincoln immigrants and refugees also take part in the holiday cheer, with many even sprucing up their homes with Christmas trees.

But amid new celebrations, they do not forget their own cultural holiday traditions.

Natasha Naseem, a community organizer with Nebraska Appleseed, keeps up her family’s religious celebrations from Pakistan, while also embracing holidays revered by many in Lincoln.

Natasha Naseem of Lincoln invites her friends to take part in the holiday traditions her parents practiced in Pakistan.

When Naseem and her family receive time off over winter, they use  their days spent together and get into the cultural spirit of Thanksgiving and Christmas, as Naseem said they respect all holidays.

“My family loves Christian holidays, too. We love Thanksgiving, because we usually use that time to see family,” she said. “Christmas, we will use that time to see family, and give gifts just because if we have that time, we might as well indulge in it and enjoy our family, too.”

With the contagiously jolly atmosphere and dazzling lights, it’s easy for Saad Murad, Yazda-Yazidi Cultural Center media director, and other immigrants and refugees to get into the holiday spirit, decorating their own rooms with trees and visiting friends.

“I think the people are feeling happy and they enjoy this time of the year as everyone is waiting for this moment to come and to celebrate together and they meet friends, visit families, relatives,” he said. “It’s really something amazing.”

Following the Yazidi persecution and genocide committed by ISIS in 2014, in which his younger brothers and some of his relatives were killed, Murad left his home in Sinjar, in northern Iraq, at the beginning of 2017. He lives alone in Lincoln, as some of his family fled to Germany, while others remain in Iraq.

With no family residing nearby, Murad said he gets together with a group of friends to take part in Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as his own traditional holidays.

Saad Murad, Yazda-Yazidi Cultural Center media director, celebrates Yazidi holidays in Lincoln but also gets into the spirit of Christmas and Thanksgiving.

“In Christmas, we are a group of friends that meet together and celebrate together and like, drink, eat together,” he said. “Even in Iraq, we were doing such things in Christmas.”

While many will celebrate these Christian holidays, they will also incorporate some of their own traditions into the events.

For Thanksgiving, Lanetta Edison-Soe said she doesn’t like turkey, so she has chicken instead and mixes some of her own traditional foods with typical Thanksgiving dishes. In this way, many Asian people adapt to U.S. traditions such as cooking turkey, putting up a tree and getting their family together, but they still add their own traditions and food, according to Rebecca Reinhardt, Asian Community & Cultural Center cultural programs coordinator.

Not only do they welcome new practices into their lives, but they also enjoy sharing their own cultural and religious traditions with friends and others.

After growing up in a time of uncertainty after 9/11, Naseem said sharing her holiday traditions has become more of an exchange as she’s gotten older.

“I think my family has done a good job of taking charge of the narrative, like, ‘Here’s what we are, come join us,’ rather than just, ‘Keep a distance because you don’t get it,'” she said.

Now, Naseem brings friends of different upbringings to Eid celebrations with her family because it’s important for her that others see her faith, she said. And, not only do they get a glimpse into her culture, but they also have a lot of fun and appreciate the food.

“I think that when I’ve brought desserts for friends, they’ve enjoyed them,” she said. “Whenever they have food and whenever I can share recipes, it’s a big deal. And, I think that’s the gateway to any culture.”

After leaving their homelands, immigrants and refugees may not be as able to actively participate in their cultural traditions, but they still remember them with clarity and fondness.

This is the case for Edison-Soe, who around this time of the year thinks back to the activities she took part in at a Thailand refugee camp for 17 years, including a huge Christmas day celebration.

Rebecca Reinhardt (left) and Lanetta Edison-Soe participate in traditional celebrations that the Asian Community & Cultural Center puts on, while also incorporating Christian holidays. 

“On the ground, they build a stage and then they have a concert, and they have a present for everybody,” said Edison-Soe, a Karen community advocate at the Asian Community & Cultural Center. “We also have a Santa Claus that spreads the candies to the public, to the people that are coming. You grab candy.”

While she celebrated a similar Christmas in the refugee camp, the traditions she grew up with varied. They didn’t observe Christmas Eve and they also started playing games in November with winners deemed in the final weeks of December.

Some of the games included soccer, volleyball and a marathon run among others. However, Edison-Soe said she misses those activities now since games aren’t played outside during the wintertime in Lincoln.

In addition to the games, the Karen who follow Christian beliefs will go caroling from house to house at night, Edison-Soe added.

Sweet December, another tradition she remembers, is observed by Karen Christians. Celebrations for it start on the final night of November, in which they eat a special rice soup in anticipation of Christmas.

Before living in the Thailand refugee camp, Edison-Soe first lived in Burma Karen State, which she left because of the war. From there she came to the United States for good health and education, she said.

Never forgets traditions

Murad also moved to the U.S. in search of a better life. Although, he doesn’t forget his traditions and roots.

Even though Murad is about 6,500 miles away from northern Iraq, he still remembers and maintains important holiday celebrations throughout the year. These include Yazidi New Year, which falls on the first Wednesday of April, the seven-days Festival of Assembly, three days of fasting in December and commemoration of the Yazidi genocide on Aug. 3.

Last year, the Yazda-Yazidi Cultural Center rented space at the Lancaster Event Center for Yazidis to come and honor the final celebration day of the three-day fast, in which they fast before sunrise and eat after sunset. These three days are also believed to be the shortest days of the year, according to their faith.

“All of the Yazidi community gathered together and congratulated each other, and after that, they danced with each other,” Murad said. “It was a really amazing holiday.”

The center also set up an event to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Yazidi genocide.

“We gathered the Yazidi community together and they shared their sadness with each other and they commemorate the people that we lost during genocide,” he said.

Cultural celebrations

The Asian Community & Cultural Center also helps immigrants and refugees in Lincoln celebrate their cultural holiday traditions by putting on events, such as caroling, the Harvest Moon Festival and Lunar New Year.

For the Lunar New Year in China, Reinhardt said it lasts 15 days, and on the final day, the whole country will celebrate with a parade that includes people walking on sticks to form a dragon, eating sticky rice, making dumplings and other activities.

“You have a mask with any kind of animal or you have lanterns,” Reinhardt said. “You have fireworks, but it’s not real fireworks, kind of like kids’ play ones. And then, walk to store by store getting some new year stuff and buy so many food stuff.”

This year, the center held the Lunar New Year celebration on Feb. 25 and the Harvest Moon Festival on Sept. 23, which is called the Mid-Autumn Festival in China.

Lunar New Year celebration at the Lancaster County Event Center. Courtesy photos.

For the Harvest Moon Festival, the center provides performers, food and games, Reinhardt said. She previously lived in China for 35 years before coming to Lincoln to be with her husband and live the American dream.

To let people know about these celebrations that have been going on for four years, Edison-Soe said they post to the center’s Facebook page and hand out fliers.

Observing Eid in Lincoln

Three mosques in Lincoln – Sabah Foundation, Islam Foundation of Lincoln and Nebraska Islamic Foundation – offer ways for Lincoln’s Muslim community to observe Eid prayers throughout the year.

There are six celebrations of Eid throughout the year in the Islamic calendar, but the two major ones are Eid al-Adha, which marks the sacrifice of Abraham, and Eid al-Fitr, which occurs after a month of fasting for Ramadan is over, Naseem said.

Courtesy Photo
Children assist Natasha Naseem with registering voters during an Eid celebration.

Now living in Lincoln for the past 16 years after being born in Detroit, Michigan, Naseem honors these Muslim holidays with her family and grandparents.

Her parents first moved from Pakistan in order to complete their residencies after medical school but also to escape politicized religious divides, as her mother is a Shia and her father a Sunni, Naseem said.

“I think to some extent, there was that element, too, of especially if they did start a family, what that life could look like,” she said.

Courtesy Photo The Naseem family spends time together honoring Eid celebrations by dressing up, attending prayers and sharing food and dessert after.

When they moved, they brought their religious practices with them and continue to celebrate as a family.

For Eid prayers, Naseem said they will go to the Lancaster Event Center, since it also hosts these prayers due to the high attendance. But during Ramadan, they go to Sabah Foundation.

Spending time together

After prayers in the morning, her family and others will gather in the evening when people are off work at someone’s home.

“Everyone brings food, and the kids get to see each other and spend time together,” she said. “Because at that point and at our level, we’re a small community, so it’s very much like a family.”

However, since their major prayers are on Fridays, which are working days, and their main celebrations occur at rotating times throughout the year, it can be difficult to always find enough time, according to Naseem.

“When I was a kid and through college, almost guaranteed, I would have an exam on Eid,” she said. “But, like, obviously, I’m never going to have exams during the winter holiday, because you have your winter break and stuff.”

When holiday season rolls around, it’s not just about getting into the spirit of one’s own festivities, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, but it’s also sharing different cultures’ traditions that makes holiday celebrations so magical.

“You just want to be able to celebrate with all of the people you care about,” Naseem said. “And inevitably, they’re all going to be of different backgrounds.”