At the Kansas City Public Library's North-East Branch, Christmas is in the air - sort of. As the gateway to knowledge for Kansas City's most culturally diverse neighborhood, the North-East Branch during the holidays takes on the spirit of its patrons. And with people from different lands come different ways of celebrating (or not celebrating) the season.
Visit the North-East Branch on any day of the week, and you'll likely see people from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East checking out books for themselves or their kids, making use of the free computer access, and interacting with librarians, who, because of their skills at finding information, become guides to a new world. In turn, these people bring to Kansas City their native customs and cultures, imbuing internationalism into the landscape.
To get the widest possible view of how people in Northeast KC spend their holidays, we hunkered down for just a few hours over a couple of days at the North-East Branch, right next to an internationally themed holiday display case designed by globetrotting patron Nancy Kramer. We asked Branch Manager Claudia Visnich to introduce us to a few of her customers.
While a few of the patrons we spoke with didn't observe Christmas at all, many did - albeit in different ways. One thing they all had in common: a complete willingness to talk about their traditions. As Visnich says, "You can learn pretty much everything you need to know if you listen to your customers."
And here's what they told us about Christmas:
A few days before Thanksgiving, Sammy Ayyad brought his son, Ibrahim, on a mini book-binge for the holiday weekend. "We are very open-minded," said Ayyad. "My wife is Catholic, and I'm a Muslim." On Christmas day, Ayyad and his wife, who is from St. Louis, will exchange gifts, but the holidays are more about Ibrahim, who is hoping Santa will bring him the video game Sonic Colors.
Piling up a stack of kids' books, Argelia Zamora talked about the Mexican tradition of Las Posadas, celebrated beginning around December 16 until midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. In Zamora's hometown, people walk to each others' houses (posada is Spanish for "lodging"), eat bread, break a piñata, and drink atole, a hot drink made with rice, milk, and cinnamon. This December 24, she and her family will go to an early Mass, eat dinner, and exchange gifts. (Thanks to North-East Branch staffer Shirl Maldonado for translating.)
Nghia Nguyen became a North-East Branch regular while attending Park University and working at the location as a homework helper. He's since worked with Visnich to build the branch's Vietnamese collection from a few feet of materials to four shelves of books and DVDs to better serve the metro area's biggest population of Vietnamese immigrants (many of whom, by the way, are Christmas-observing Catholics). Nguyen and his sister Thao Van, a UMKC freshman, were raised in a Buddhist family, but they still celebrate Christmas as a holiday for children. After all, Santa Claus does visit Vietnam, where they address him as Ong Gia Noel.
Christian Delgado and his friend Jennifer Vera came to the North-East Branch early one afternoon to take advantage of the blazing-fast, free wi-fi. A music producer, radio manager, and construction demolition specialist (pretty cool resumé, huh?), Delgado divides his time between KC and San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where, he told us, December 24 is quite the fiesta. "There's a lot of food, a lot of people, loud music, firecrackers. We put on our best clothes, and sometimes people buy new clothes just for that day," he said. The Christmas hog is served up at midnight on the 24th, and people celebrate all night long.
"Everybody puts their money together, and we cook a little bit of everything." That's how Ketlyn Caton, a three-year resident of the U.S., described Christmas at home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. "Christmas is the biggest holiday in Haiti," added his friend Iguel, who had accompanied Caton to pick up some on-hold materials. "That's when the whole family comes together and spends time talking, laughing and having fun," Iguel said. Unfortunately, both Caton and Iguel have to work on the 25th this year. That's one thing, they told us, that they never had to do on Christmas Day in Haiti.
A mother of three, Kufaia Jabar moved to the U.S. from Iraq 10 years ago. "We like the holidays," she said as her son and one of her two daughters zipped through the stacks. Though they are Muslims by faith, Jabar and her family enjoy visiting neighbors' houses and giving presents to their children on Christmas Day. "Our kids were born in America, so we do Christmas for them," she said.
Vivacious Northeast High School seniors Fowsiya Mohammed and Fowziya Ahmed frequently hit up the North-East Branch for the research papers they write for school. Unlike fellow Muslims Jabar and Ayyad, they don't observe Christmas at all - not even the presents. ("My dad doesn't like me even looking at Santa," Mohammed joked.) They do, however, enjoy the holy month of Ramadan, which involves fasting all day and eating one meal at night. Though the ritual fasting may be daunting to non-Muslims, Mohammed and Ahmed agreed that its benefits are plentiful. "Honestly, if you look at yourself [during Ramadan], you feel like a better person," Ahmed said, then added with a snicker: "Then you can go back to being your crazy self." Ramadan ends with the holiday celebration of Eid, which, in addition to breaking the fast with a family meal, involves doing good deeds for charity. "That's kind of like our Christmas," Mohammed said.
So, if you're ever in need of a globalized view on a subject - whether it's holiday customs, religion, politics, or life in the Midwest - you now know where to go. At the Kansas City Public Library's North-East Branch, the patrons are happy to educate you.
-- Jason Harper