It’s the week of Christmas around the world, and here in Switzerland County school is out for the winter break and there are still all sorts of events and activities going on.
For eight students who are attending Switzerland County High School this year as foreign exchange students, Christmas is a time to learn about new customs and traditions while teaching others about theirs.
Krit “Jay” Suwannasichon and Tareeda “Ling” Phirakulsiri are both from Thailand; while Jo-Tien “Clovis” Wang lives in Taiwan. Lisa Alves and Richardo Cidral are from Brazil; Anja Rotter hails from Austria; Lisa Leoni is from Germany; and Beartriz Navarro Gortazar is from Spain.
Although they are from all over the world, the eight have become great friends, sharing this common adventure together.
But, during this Christmas season – what’s Christmas like in their home countries, or do they even celebrate Christmas at all?
• Ricardo Cidral wanted to be a part of the student exchange program because he says he’s always wanted to learn English and see what it’s like to live a “different life.”
“I have a lot of friends, they came before, and everybody said, ‘oh, it was the best year of my life’, and they said it was awesome, so I wanted to come,” Ricardo Cidral said.
There are just three years of high school in Brazil, and Ricardo is in his junior year.
And Christmas in Brazil?
“It’s hot because it’s summer,” he said. “So we do Christmas on the 24th, and at midnight we open the presents. On the 25th we spend with the family, and on the 26th we go to the beach.”
He and his family all celebrate New Year’s at the beach.
Ricardo says that there are Christmas trees in Brazil, but all of them are artificial because real Christmas trees don’t grow there. There is no angel at the top of the tree, that is replaced by a star. Brazil does have Santa Claus, and his family enjoys a ‘Secret Santa’ way of giving gifts to each other.
Although Christmas is celebrated, the biggest holiday event in Brazil is Carnival, which usually falls in February.
Because it is summer in Brazil now, students are just now getting out for their ‘summer break’, with classes resuming at the end of February. There is also a two week winter break in July.
• Lisa Alves is from San Paulo, Brazil, and she also wanted to participate in the program so that she could learn English and have different experiences and meet new people.
Her older sister had been an exchange student in the past, living in Washington, D.C.; and her older brother was also a part of the exchange student program, living and going to school in Illinois.
“Christmas is pretty much the same, except it’s warm there,” Lisa said. “You swim and you have barbecues. My family opens our presents at midnight on the 24th. We don’t wait until the 25th.”
“Because my sister was born on the 25th, so we have a barbecue for her so it’s different.”
Lisa Alves says that there is Santa Claus in Brazil, but because Christmas falls in the summer, most of the time he’s not wearing the big, heavy, red suit.
• Lisa Leoni’s older sister came to America five years ago as an exchange student.
“All my friends have done it, so I just wanted to see something new,” Lisa Leoni said.
In Germany, Christmas is fairly similar to here.
“We get presents on the 24th,” she said. “The day is pretty normal. At noon we go to the church, and then we come back and we eat. Then we open the presents. Then on the 25th and 26th, we visit grandma and grandpa and the family. It’s not really that much different.”
Christmas trees are a holiday tradition in Germany, and Lisa says that the family brings it in and decorates it, much like here.
There’s a Christmas break in Germany that falls much like the break here.
• Anja Rotter’s journey to Switzerland County actually began with a desire to go to England for two months over the summer.
“None of my friends have done this before, and, I don’t know, somehow I got into this and then I decided to stay for a year,” she said.
In Austria, Anja Rotter and her family have some different elements but it’s similar in how it’s celebrated.
“It’s almost the same as Germany,” she said. “But we don’t have Santa Claus. We have some one called the Christ Child, and we tell the little children that the Christ Child brings the presents.”
Anja Rotter said that on December 5th a character named ‘Krampus’, who’s not very nice, comes and visits the bad children and scares them; while on December 6th St. Nicholas comes to visit, coming to see the good children in preparation for Christmas.
“We put our shoes and boots out like stockings, and then we get a lot of chocolate,” Anja said.
She said that the Christ Child also brings the Christmas tree.
“We don’t put out our tree early like here,” she said. “The Christ Child brings the tree. When I was little I thought the tree was the Christ Child! I couldn’t figure out about a baby bringing presents.”
• Jay Suwannasichon is from Thailand, but in a different part of the country from Ling Phirakulsiri.
Jay Suwannasichon became interested in coming here after the program that he was interested in participating with wanted a huge amount of money from its students. From there he began to explore other options, finding the program that brought him to Switzerland County.
“My brother came here already,” Jay said. “It was like eight years ago and he was in Iowa and he go back and he speaks English very well. My father said, ‘Yes you can go. I want you to live and go to America’.”
Jay is a sophomore in high school.
• Ling Phirakulsiri smiles when she recounts how she became involved in the exchange student program.
“My mother forced me to go, I didn’t want to go,” Ling smiled. “I passed the test for some reason, so my mom made me go. I cried. I did not want to come here, but she forced me, so I came.”
So is she better?
“Oh yes, I like it here when I come,” She said. “It’s good here.”
There is no Christmas in Thailand, but Jay said that his school celebrates Christmas because he attends a private, Catholic school.
“It’s just like everything over here, except it’s a different religion,” Jay said.
Jay said that businesses and places in the cities do decorate for Christmas, but it isn’t celebrated in the homes.
With there being no national celebration of a Christmas holiday, Ling said that families do not have things like Christmas trees in their homes. It’s just another day.
Jay and Ling said that the big holiday in Thailand is ‘Songkran’ – Thai New Year. It is celebrated each year from April 13th-15th.
“If you go outside in the city you will get wet,” Jay says. “People throw water at you (possibly because it’s held at the hottest time of the year in Thailand). You go outside, you’ll get wet, but it’s fun.”
• Beatriz Navarro Gortazar said that wanting to learn English and also learning about life here were the big reasons why she chose to be a part of the student exchange program.
“I wanted to see life here and live with another family and know more people,” Bea said.
Christmas in Spain also revolves around family.
“We have dinner with our family on the 24th, and we get presents from Santa on the 24th, too,” Bea said. “Christmas day is pretty much the same.”
A difference in the celebration comes on January 6th, when the country celebrates “Fiesta de los tres Reyes Mages”, which means the “Festival of the Three Magic Kings”.
“It celebrates the three magic kings who come to Jesus and give him gifts,” Bea said. “They come the sixth, and they give us presents again. The sixth is bigger than the 25th.”
There is a three-week Christmas break in Spain for students.
• Jo-Tien “Clovis” Wang had a brother and a friend who had come to America as part of the exchange program and really like their time here, so she began to investigate how she might come, as well. Her brother spent a year in Michigan last year.
Christmas is celebrated in Taiwan by some people, but not others, according to Clovis.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said. “It’s just for fun there. The cities decorate. Some schools decorate. The stores decorate so they can make us spend more money.”
In Taiwan, the major holiday is Chinese New Year, which usually falls in January or February.
So for these eight students, Christmas is a different and exciting time, just like students here – and for some it’s a very new experience.
– Pat Lanman