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Twist on traditions

Foreign-raised residents of Fargo-Moorhead occasionally see their Christmastime routines radically revised. They might throw on some Britney Spears along with the tribal music that powers the customary Christmas dance marathon. Or they might find...

Cizaria and Joseph Vuni

Foreign-raised residents of Fargo-Moorhead occasionally see their Christmastime routines radically revised.

They might throw on some Britney Spears along with the tribal music that powers the customary Christmas dance marathon. Or they might find themselves scouring the Internet for experimental gourmet recipes to whip up along with grandma's staples - and holding off on the hot sauce for the benefit of American guests.

Holiday traditions are a sturdy bridge that year after year carries immigrants on nostalgia-charged virtual journeys to their native lands. But sometimes, they also bring them closer to their host communities.

Members of some of the

Fargo-Moorhead area's largest immigrant groups talked about the Christmas traditions they brought from their homelands and the tweaks they made to adapt them to their new home.

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All together now

On Christmas Day more than a decade ago, Liberian native Charles Nyan dressed up and headed to a club. At the time, the Fargo resident still lived in New York, the city that never sleeps, so he was shocked to find the club closed. He drove from club to club in mounting disbelief.

In his west African home country, communities burst out into the streets on Christmas Day and dance till the wee hours. Youth groups set up soccer standoffs.

"The difference here is everybody keeps to themselves," says Nyan, a leader at the new Minority Development and Resource Center. "It's just you and your family. Over there, everybody gets involved."

The area's growing 400-some-member Liberian community gathered at Fargo's VFW last Christmas Day. There was a festive potluck spread - catfish, rice, the traditional vegetable paste fufu - and, of course, dancing.

But instead of a giant drum announcing the time and place of the bash, arrangements were made over the phone. And instead of live drumming at the dance, a tape-recorded version played.

Cultural differences don't end here. In December, many newly arrived Liberian refugees are saddened to see neighbors' front doors sprouting wreaths - a sign of a death in the family. And, says fellow community leader Sam Shaka about American neighbors: "They all want white Christmas. I don't understand that. I want dry Christmas."

Gourmet Christmas

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When Oscar Flores was growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, his parents took turns celebrating Christmas with his dad's family - on a remote cattle ranch where they ate dinner by gas lamp and bypassed gifts - and with his mom's well-off folks in the city.

Either way, they did things a bit differently from what Flores, a Protestant, discovered in the United States when he moved in 1984 to attend graduate school.

For one thing, the holiday feast took place on Christmas Eve. The women of the extended family bustled in the kitchen to prepare traditional fare such as pig roast, tamales and the sugar-and-cinnamon-coated tortillas called bonuelos. Dinner started after 9.

And, "We had hot sauce with everything," says Flores.

Now the Minnesota State University Moorhead economics chairman and father of three is in charge of Christmas cooking. His family and guests from the university still dine on the night of the 24th, but over the years, he's adjusted to serving dinner earlier, the American way.

His feast menu is unabashedly untraditional: He likes looking for gourmet recipes online, like the rosemary-and-garlic-stuffed leg of lamb he prepared last year. As for the hot sauce, Flores' wife, Ohio native Joanne Boylan, says, "He just always has his bottle on the table, like ketchup."

Boot hunting

When Zijad and Sanita Repak's son, Alan, 13, was 3, a neighbor made off with one of his boots. After stuffing it with candy, he set it in a flower shop window.

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The Bosnian couple from West Fargo was living in Heidelberg, Germany, after Zijad was recruited by a local soccer team. The Repaks are Muslim, but after Alan's birth, they joined in some holiday staples, such as the Dec. 6 boot-nabbing ritual, a pre-Christmas tradition.

That day, they, along with throngs of parent-child teams, hunted for the boot in shop windows.

"It's not that we celebrate Christmas, but just the atmosphere of it, with the baking and presents and goodies," says Sanita. "Everywhere it smells so nice in Germany at Christmas."

When the family moved to Fargo eight years ago, they continued stuffing their son's boot with candy for a few years. To avoid baffling shopkeepers and customers, they kept it at home.

Pizza and pop

"I have found it's a little different here than back home," says Cizaria Vuni about Christmas in Fargo-Moorhead and in Nimule, the small town in southern Sudan she fled amid civil war.

Back home: The Vunis had an artificial tree, something of a luxury in town. Here: Since Vuni arrived in Fargo with her husband and two children, the family has decorated a real tree. Back home: For the Christmas feast, a cow or sheep would be slaughtered and cooked on an open fire. Here: The meat comes from the grocery store and simmers in a pot. Back home: The holiday feast is a big communal bash. Here: Christmas is a family affair.

But even in America, says Vuni, "We have to see one another. It's our habit to be together." From about 10 on Christmas Eve to about 6 the next morning, Sudanese refugees gather at Moorhead's Church of St. John for prayer. After a nap, preparations for that afternoon's feast are under way.

The menu includes traditional specialties such as samosas, the meat-and-veggie-stuffed puffs - as well as pizza, a favorite of teenage recent arrivals from Sudan. Also at teens' request, the dance soundtrack features American pop music along with African tribal beats.

"I don't understand the meaning of the songs, but they enjoy them," Vuni says, with a laugh. "It's not bad."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

Cizaria and Joseph Vuni

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