News Articles

‘Momma Jo’ helps international students understand American holiday traditions

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (BP)–For most international students, traveling to attend a college or university in the United States means adapting to a foreign culture replete with a plethora of often-confusing symbols, traditions and ideals.

The American holiday season is a prime example — from feasting on a turkey leg, cornbread dressing, candied yams and pecan pie at Thanksgiving to singing Christmas carols, memorizing the 12 days of Christmas, recognizing the ubiquitous traditional icons of Frosty the Snowman, candy canes, Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and wrapping and placing presents under the highly decorated tree — and that doesn’t even include the noise makers, revelry and fireworks of an American New Year’s Eve celebration.

While many international students in Oklahoma City may not yet have learned that “Most sales are after Christmas, but Clark’s is just before,” they have been exposed to the brazen commercialism of the holiday as they eagerly join their American counterparts in trying to find “just the right gift” for that special person on their shopping list.

Anna Jo Wilson, more commonly known as “Momma Jo” to literally thousands of international students who attend or have attended Oklahoma City University over the past three decades, uses the holiday season each year to teach internationals — both those who are in school and other families which live in the area — the true meaning of Christmas.

“Most internationals have not been exposed to Christmas — and certainly not on the scale it is celebrated in the United States,” Wilson said, “But, they do celebrate Christmas after a fashion. Many of them tell us Christmas is commercial in their countries, too, and they didn’t know there is such a thing as a Christian Christmas when you talk about Jesus.”

New Year’s, especially in Asia and specifically in China, is a much larger holiday and one when young people’s expectations are high. “At New Year’s, they get a little red envelope from each of their relatives which contains money, so they really look forward to that time of the year,” Wilson explained.

“But, I want to help them know that Christmas is about Jesus; it’s not about money; it’s not about gifts; it’s not about Santa Claus and all of the commercialism they see. We celebrate Christmas because of the birth of Jesus and why He came into the world.

“We have read the Christmas story twice already at events, and we will read it again on Christmas day. There will be no gifts under the tree; the only gifts we will have are white elephant gifts and we’ll play ‘dirty Santa’ so they can have a fun time as we celebrate the birth of our Savior.”

Wilson said the BCM has averaged about 45 people at each event they have held, including the tree decorating, and a graduation party. Additional events will be attending a candlelight Christmas Eve service at Oklahoma City, Northwest, and several Christmas day activities, including breakfast, Jesus’ birthday party at noon and dinner in the evening at the BCM.

The students come from around the world — Korea, Indonesia, Japan, Iran, Romania, India and Morocco — with many from mainland China.

“Many of them have been in the U.S. just a short time, and they are amazed that we talk about Jesus and religion rather than gifts and parties and drinking and dancing and all of those things they see at home during Christmas,” Wilson said.

    About the Author

  • Bob Nigh