Can a little turkey help unite families and bridge cultures?

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My future wife and I had only lived together a couple of months when she faced an utterly terrifying test: a private chat with my mom. “You know,” my mother leaned in close to Megan, “Niall has never missed a Christmas with us.”

Just what was Megan to do with that? Was it assumed Christmas would forever more be a McKenna family affair? Would there be room for new traditions? Or was my mom just mentally preparing for the inevitable Christmas sans her youngest?

Moving in with someone, getting married and merging households are a joining of family values, beliefs and rituals. Sometimes, the merger is more like a collision, which makes the holidays the roller derby of family consolidation as we barter traditions (“We get to open one present on Christmas Eve, right?”), risk disappointments (“I don’t think we can make it for dinner, grandma”), or try to please everyone as we pack up presents and race from one family function to the next. Not so much an emotional rollercoaster as an emotional Gravitron, with the forces of sentimentality and high expectations constantly pulling at us.

Last year, as my wife and I prepared to celebrate our seventh holiday season together, we decided it was to time to declare Christmas Independence. We felt we had successfully incorporated the right number of traditions from each other’s family-of-origin; we had crafted a few rituals of our own and were ready to have a full Christmas on our own. Sharing it with others seemed like a great step to pronounce our new Holiday Kingdom. Plus, we’d have the pleasure of giving others who are away from family the chance to learn about the season.

That’s why we decided to take part in Share the CheerShare the Cheer, a program where UAlberta faculty, staff and alumni, graduate students host UAlberta international students for one dinner during the holidays.

Megan and I welcomed two international students for Christmas Eve dinner. With roughly three-quarters of the U of A’s 4,244 international undergraduate students coming from China, it was little surprise that both our guests were from the East Asian country. We were thrilled to learn more about their culture and give them a comforting meal.

Xuerui (“Sherry”) Lin, an electrical engineering grad student, and Zhen Sun, a marketing undergrad, had both arrived in Canada four months prior and were captivated by just about everything: our sparkling tree, the stockings on the mantle, and even a book with a Canadian take on the “12 Days of Christmas” (“Three beaver tails, two caribou, and a porcupine in a pine tree.”)

“I was really impressed with your family atmosphere,” Sherry wrote us later.

“I liked our conversations during the dinner because it let me know more Canadian culture and widen my horizon,” added Sun.

A family can’t take on every Christmas tradition. Choices have to be made. By hosting Sherry and Sun, Megan and I were able to reflect on why each ritual we chose was right for our growing family. We “owned” them, in a way.

But the biggest benefit was giving two international students a rare look into a Canadian home, and friendships we would never have had the chance to make otherwise.

I invite all staff, faculty, grad students and alumni to take part in Share the Cheer and open your home and holiday traditions to international students who are hungry for the chance.

We welcomed another newcomer to Christmas dinner last year: our first child, Olivia.

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And she was a hit with Xuerui, who goes by “Sherry” …

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… Sun got a sneak peek into fatherhood.

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Thank you, Share the Cheer, for making our Christmas memorable.

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Niall McKenna — Communications Strategist, Strategic Communications, Office of Advancement

I’m a Scotland-born journalist-turned communications strategist, now working the Office of Advancement at the University of Alberta. Essentially, I’m here to tell donors, friends and alumni of U of A why this institution is awesome and worth supporting. I love stories — and this university has no shortage of fascinating tales to tell.