Homeland traditions mix with new adventures for exchange students

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As the Christmas holiday nears and the season is in full swing, many residents find themselves involved in holiday traditions that have been a part of their family for generations.

Other traditions are more national in scope, from how homes are decorated to the types of foods we enjoy to visiting with family and friends.

For six young ladies at Switzerland County High School, this Christmas season will see new traditions, as they discover the holidays here.

The six are exchange students who are living here with host families while attending high school this year. Having already been here since the beginning of the school year, all six have accumulated to Switzerland County and the area well, but are awaiting the Christmas season.

Sophie Jaenisch is from Frankfurt, Germany, and lives with Mark and Pam Ely. Cecilia Buizza is from Italy and lives with Ryan and Michelle Banta. Kristina Erdelyiova is from Slovakia and lives with Eric and Lora Cole. Katerina Svobodova is from the Czech Republic and lives with Jeff and Sally Weales. Meltem Kaya is from Hamburg, Germany and lives with Ryan and Michelle Banta. Selina Boettcher is also from Hamburg, Germany, and she lives with high school teacher Denny Jackson and his wife, Fritzi, and Milton, Kentucky.

So what are some of the traditions of their homelands?

“We celebrate Christmas on the 24th on Christmas Eve with my family,” Sophie Jaenisch said. “We have a Christmas tree that we decorate one week before. We are eating and going to church every year. We have a big dinner and I am always with my family. We get presents. It’s a lot like Christmas here.”

Sophie Jaenisch said that for her family – like many here – it’s more than just the one day.

“On the 25th and 26th, we always are visiting my grandparents and other relatives.”

Frankfurt is in the southern part of Germany, and is one of the biggest cities in Germany; so Sophie and the others are also adapting to a small town and community.

“In Slovakia, we celebrate on Christmas Eve, too,” Kristina Erdelyiova said. “We have a big dinner, and then we open our Christmas presents. It’s almost the same, except we don’t go to church, instead we visit our families. On the 25th we go and visit my grandparents and have lunch with them.”

Kristina Erdelyiova is from a smaller city, but it is about 10 minutes from the capital city of Bratislava. Slovakia is located in central Europe, bordered by Hungary to the south and Poland to the north.

Cecilia Buizza is from Italy, and many of the traditions here are similar to those in her home country, but there’s also a big difference.

“We celebrate Christmas like here, but at home kids get presents on the 13th of December, and there’s this woman named Santa Lucia, who carries presents with her donkey,” Cecilia Buizza said. “The kids leave treats near the fireplace for the donkey and the woman, and if they have been good all year, the woman leaves them presents, but if they have been bad, the woman will bring ashes for them. She leaves presents at grandparents home and at your home.”

Cecilia said that tradition holds that Santa Lucia is blind, which is why she travels with the donkey.

“She usually has a bell, so when you hear the bell that means that she’s coming,” Cecilia said. “She will leave candies from your room to where the presents are.”

Cecilia said that on the 25th she and all the members of her family gather for a big lunch.

Cecilia Buizza lives in the north central part of Italy near Lake Garda, which is the largest lake in the country.

“We also have Christmas Eve,” Katerina Svobodova said of her home country of the Czech Republic. “For dinner we have a fish. My family goes outside and we decorate a tree for animals with apples and all the things that animals eat.”

Katerina also said that some people have a tradition of cutting an apple across near the center where the seeds are located.

“When you cut the apple, if there is a star shape, then you will be lucky the next year; but if there is a cross, there will be either a bad disease or death in the family,” she said.

Along with that, other traditions of the Czech people have been carried on for centuries.

“Before it was Christian, it was a celebration of Winter, and everyone thought it was special and that you could see into the future,” Katerina said. “The young girls, they face their back towards the door and they take their right shoe and toss it behind their back. If the shoe faces the door, they’ll marry somebody within the next year.”

And there’s also the Christmas fish for dinner.

“When we get the fish, we usually have it in the bathtub,” she said. “In my family, we don’t really like fish that much, but we had one for a week or two in the bathtub. Little kids are in the water with the fish. We use the scales, that is symbolic of money, so people at the Christmas Eve dinner, they put the scales under their plate to have money the next year; or they carry it all year in their wallet.”

Katerina said that in the Czech Republic, Santa Claus comes to visit the children on the night of December 5th – not Christmas Eve.

“In the Czech Republic, mostly teenagers and young adults, they dress like St. Nicholas, a devil, and an angel; and they go from family to family,” Katerina said. “Usually the families call them before to have them visit and they tell them about their kids and give them some presents to bring.”

Katerina said that when the day comes, the trio visits the house and go in and see the children.

“St. Nick has a big book, and he will tell them, ‘I read that you were really bad this year. Shouldn’t I send my friend here out to take you to hell?'” Katerina laughed. “And the angel says, ‘No, he’ll be good next year. Let him have one more chance’.”

She said that the children who are deemed to be good that year are encouraged to sing a song or recite a poem that all children learn in elementary school.

Katerina Svobodova lives in a small town, but it is near a city of 300,000 people; about two hours southeast from the capital city of Prague.

Meltem Kaya lives in Hamburg, Germany; but she has other traditions.

“We are from Germany, but we don’t really have those traditions, we don’t go to church because my parents are from Turkey so we are Muslim,” Meltem Kaya said. “But we kind of celebrate it because we live in Germany.”

Meltem said that her family visits her aunt every year for Christmas; and she also prepares a really big dinner with a goose as the main course.

“We don’t have a real Christmas tree, we have a fake one, but we do have presents,” she said. “We also celebrate St. Nicholas, also on the sixth of December.”

But her celebration is different.

“We clean our boots and put them in front of the door on the night of the fifth,” Meltem said. “Then the next morning they are filled with presents or chocolate or money because St. Nick came and filled them.”

Selina Boettcher is also from Hamburg, Germany.

“We also do things kind of different, but much is the same,” she said of Christmas. “My family, we have this big dinner with turkey and everything on the 25th, so on the 24th we have a smaller dinner with the family. We have the bigger dinner after we have our presents, then on the 26th we eat the leftovers.”

Selina also said that Advent is important in Germany and to her family. She said that the Advent season is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day.

“We have a wreath, and on the wreath are four candles,” she said. “Every Sunday you light one of the candles. When you have four candles on, next will come the Christmas Day. We also have a calendar, where we always have little presents or chocolate in it, and you open one everyday until the 24th of December. By Christmas Eve you have opened all of them.”

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So how has their adjustment been from their homes in Europe to Switzerland County?

“With this school here, it is so much easier to make friends and to know the people,” Katerina said. “It wasn’t like that back home. Here we can make more friends.”

- Pat Lanman