More than gift giving: International students talk about holiday celebrations

St. Thomas University international student David Effiong said his winter holidays revolve around Christmas and his Christian faith. (Submitted: David Effiong)

Sony Phùng, a St. Thomas University student living in Vietnam, was raised in a Buddhist family. She said that Christmas is connected solely to Christianity, but living in the small town of Hue, she said Christianity is uncommon.

She said only Christian households and churches decorate trees, but there are nativity scenes made of clay placed throughout the city.

“It isn’t really important, or anything really prominent to us, but it’s a great excuse to just escape and talk to people you haven’t talked to in a while,” said Phùng.

She said the Lunar New Year holiday would be equivalent to Christmas in Canada and takes place between the end of January and early February. She said her family celebrates the birth of Buddha as well, usually taking place in May, depending on the Gregorian calendar. 

During the pagodas celebrating the Buddha, Phùng said she’d wander around town. On a full moon, the family pagoda would have free meals all day.

“The streets and the pagodas would be fully decorated, and the atmosphere would also be very different from normal … everyone can feel it,” said Phùng. “It’s a wonderful day to eat, pray and wander around, breathing it all in.”

For David Effiong, a fourth-year international student, Christmas revolves around his Christian faith. Effiong said he and his family spend the majority of their holiday praying, reading the Bible and peacefully thinking about their faith before any celebrations begin.

He was born in Nigeria, but his family now lives in Moscat, Oman. He said in the Middle East, Christmas is perceived as a Christian holiday and there aren’t many festivities marketed through the city.

“Here, they mostly believe in Islam, but they also accept a lot of other religions. There’s a church for Christians and a church for Catholics,” said Effiong. “They just ask you to respect their religion and they will respect yours.”

Sony Phùng, a St. Thomas University student living in Vietnam, said the Lunar New Year would be equivalent to Christmas in Canada. (Submitted: Sony Phùng)

Because of COVID-19, Effiong can’t go home for the holidays. Although he said the festivities seem to be more significant in Canada, there is one key difference.

“Before, I didn’t really celebrate by giving presents,” said Effiong. “Since being here, I’ve realized the whole present side of things and how important they are here.”

Vivien Zelanzy, the STU campus minister, is organizing events to celebrate the holidays. She said on Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. there will be an advent mass representing the season of preparation for Christmas in Catholicism. The mass will be live-streamed on the Facebook page, welcoming all.

“It gives students an opportunity to wrap up the semester with a really beautiful experience at mass with some fellowship and hanging out with friends,” said Zelazny.

On Christmas Eve, she said there will be a late-night celebratory mass at 9 p.m. with Christmas-themed readings from the Bible, a sermon and a eucharist, also known as communion.

Zelazny said she is working with the foodbank by organizing packages of staple foods to create a Christmas dinner for students in need. They plan to include recipes and tips for cooking a Christmas meal at home.

She said the Campus Ministry will also be running STU Santas, a program designed to help students specifically with children who may need financial assistance this holiday.

“We have 24 student families who we’re going to be supporting, and the call has gone out to faculty and staff to donate and they are just doing an amazing job.”

Zelazny said the goal is to offer an open, joyous community for those who can’t be with family this holiday.

“I do hope that this story will reach precisely those people, and maybe we can help them to celebrate in some way … to make them feel somewhat at home.”