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THIS IS AMERICA - Christmas 2010 in America: Three Stories of Struggle, Tradition and Wonder

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Sharon and Jeffrey Davis at a shelter in Arlington, Virginia. They are currently homeless, but hope that will soon change.
Sharon and Jeffrey Davis at a shelter in Arlington, Virginia. They are currently homeless, but hope that will soon change.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Faith Lapidus.

This week on our program we hear from some Americans about Christmas past, present and future.

(MUSIC)

FAITH LAPIDUS: Jeffrey Davis remembers Christmas two years ago at his former home in Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington.

JEFFREY DAVIS: "We had a great Christmas tree -- nice presents, with family, friends, loved ones, people you want to be around because it only happens once a year. And that's when everybody actually gathers to be amongst one another. Relatives you haven't seen all year, on Christmas."

Mr. Davis is fifty years old. He has a friendly personality and a big smile, except that he recently fell and broke four teeth and a leg.

Jeffrey Davis and his wife, Sharon, are living on the streets. They became homeless two years ago. He says it was not the economy or the problems in the housing market that put them there.

JEFFREY DAVIS: "Actually I got sick. I'm a very bad diabetic. I'm on eight hundred units of insulin a day. I developed diabetes really bad and I couldn't work. So that's what put me in the situation that I'm in now. Prior to that, I was working, self-sufficient, everything was fine. Until I got sick."

Mr. Davis says he lost his job as a restaurant chef after he got sick.

JEFFREY DAVIS: "I was actually sleeping outside. I went without my insulin for like four or five months at one time because I couldn't afford to buy it and I didn't have any insurance."

But a local group came to his aid. The Arlington Street People's Assistance Network is also known as A-SPAN. It began in nineteen ninety-one. It works to get people off the streets and into permanent housing.

At night, A-SPAN case workers search local woods, streets, parks and other places for people in need of shelter.

That is how the Street Outreach Staff met Jeffrey and Sharon Davis. Over time A-SPAN workers gained the couple's trust. The Davises began to stop by the group's shelter for food and other assistance.

The staff also helped connect Mr. Davis with the right county services so he could get his insulin. And when the weather is cold -- as it is now -- the couple can spend the night in a shelter.

A-SPAN also works with other groups. This time of year, they try to make the holiday season brighter for homeless people like the Davises.

A-SPAN holds a party for the people it serves. The group provides transportation to the event. This year's party is Monday, December twentieth, in a room at a church near the shelter.

A-SPAN employee Sarah Morse says about one hundred twenty-five clients are expected to attend. She says there will be food, gifts and music.

SARAH MORSE: "Last year, one of our staff members actually brought his own guitar and amplifier and led us in several rounds of song, Christmas songs and holiday songs. And that was really fun. We hope to have some lively music again this year."

Sarah Morse says another popular event is the party raffle. When clients arrive, they each get a ticket with a number. After the meal, winning numbers are called. Prizes include things like gift cards, duffel bags to hold belongings, and hair cuts.

Ms. Morse says the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network also teams with businesses and groups for other holiday events.

SARAH MORSE: "So, for example, on Christmas morning, a local pancake house is hosting a Christmas morning breakfast. Then we also have a group in Arlington called the Arlington Interfaith Council, and they provide a Christmas dinner every year. These things are really great because they happen right on the holidays, right on Christmas Day."

Jeffrey and Sharon Davis hope to go to the holiday events. But they hope for a much bigger gift in January.

The couple is in the process to receive a special housing grant from Arlington County. If all goes as planned, they could be in a home of their own again next month.

JEFFREY DAVIS: "And that would be a great Christmas present. So, we're praying and hoping everything falls into place."

And, as he tells reporter Caty Weaver, if those prayers are answered, he knows exactly what he would do next December.

JEFFREY DAVIS: "For next Christmas, I'm coming back and volunteer for A-SPAN and give back some of what they gave me. I think that's only right, I think that's only fair. If I give back something just as well as they gave me, it'll be a great Christmas."

REPORTER: "And a little tree in the new home?"

JEFFREY DAVIS: "A tree in the new home, some gifts under the tree. Some family members can come to where I lay my head and enjoy my home as well."

(MUSIC)

Sharing Christmas with family and friends is traditional.  It is especially important to the Cerqueira family. Maria and Abel moved from Portugal twenty-five years ago and raised their two children in the United States. But they left much family behind in Portugal, and still feel a strong connection to their homeland.

Maria and Abel Cerqueira, visiting their hometown in northern Portugal earlier this year
Maria and Abel Cerqueira, visiting their hometown in northern Portugal earlier this year

The Cerqueiras will spend Christmas in New Jersey with Maria's brother and his family. But they also plan to celebrate with family members in Portugal. How? With an Internet video call on Skype.

MARIA CERQUEIRA: "You talk like you are together, you know? Even if you can't touch, you can see the person. It is very nice, you know?"

The Cerqueiras say many Christmas traditions are the same in Portugal and America. Many people have a tree, sing songs and exchange gifts. Some people open their presents on Christmas Eve, some wait until Christmas morning.

But one difference is the food. Americans commonly eat ham or turkey at Christmas. Maria Cerqueira describes a traditional Christmas Eve meal in northern Portugal.

MARIA CERQUEIRA: "It's codfish, with potatoes, carrots, kale. And we have octopus salad, also with vinegar and olive oil and onion. We cook the octopus also. Also we boil it and then we cut [it] in little pieces. We make a salad."

The codfish is also boiled and salted and covered in olive oil.

Abel Cerqueira says the Portuguese also have a traditional drink at Christmastime. It starts with a red wine from northern Portugal.

ABEL CERQUEIRA: "In Portuguese it's called 'vinho verde.'"

Vinho verde -- meaning green wine. A red wine called green wine? The green is more about the ripeness, or lack of ripeness, of the grapes used to make the wine.

Vinho verde is not a sweet wine. But the Portuguese make it sweet on Christmas. Abel Cerqueira says they heat the wine on the stove. Then they mix in sugar. The wine is enjoyed during and after the meal.

The Cerqueiras left some traditions behind when they left Portugal. For instance, Abel says gifts were never wrapped in paper when he was growing up. When you woke up Christmas morning, he says, you found your presents completely open under the tree -- no boxes, bags or paper.

Also, Abel and Maria say Portuguese children try to play a trick on Santa Claus. The night before Christmas, they place their oldest, poorest looking shoes near the chimney. They think that Santa will give children with poor shoes more presents and better presents.

But not the two Cerqueira children. They leave their shoes in their rooms and receive their presents wrapped under the Christmas tree. The couple says they started doing that part of Christmas the way they saw their American friends do it.

(MUSIC)

Betty and Bill Blando are retired. They live in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. This year they tried what could become a new tradition for them at Christmastime. They took a one-day bus trip to Washington.

We met up with them at the United States Botanic Garden on the grounds of the Capitol building. Betty Blando described their visit as a "triple header."

BETTY BLANDO: "We went to the White House for the Christmas tour. Then we went to Ford's Theater for 'A Christmas Carol,' which is fantastic. Now, here."

BILL BLANDO: "This is the cherry on top of the sundae."

Bill Blando was excited by the model train exhibit at the Botanic Garden. The exhibit has been a part of the winter holidays each year since two thousand four.

This year's theme is "holiday getaway." Designers and landscape architects created models of some of the world's greatest structures. The trains pass by the Great Wall of China, an Egyptian pyramid, Paris' Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal in India -- thirteen structures in all. All of these landmarks are sitting among hills and caves and bridges.

A holiday train exhibit at the US Botanic Garden in Washington includes a model of an ancient temple in Tikal, Guatemala
A holiday train exhibit at the US Botanic Garden in Washington includes a model of an ancient temple in Tikal, Guatemala

We asked the Blandos if they had any idea how trains came to be a Christmas tradition in America.

BILL BLANDO: "Well, I know as a kid I always wanted one underneath the Christmas tree because every little boy likes trains. Other than that, no, I don't know."

Betty Blando also wondered. So we did some research.

One reason people may connect Christmas with trains is because many people traveled home for the holidays by train. Some still do. But there was a true Christmas train -- a passenger train that began service in South Carolina on December twenty-fifth, eighteen thirty. It represented the first regularly scheduled passenger-train service in the United States. That train may help explain why today toy trains run around Christmas trees in many homes across America.

(MUSIC)

So that is a taste of Christmas in the Washington area. But what about elsewhere? Our reporter Caty Weaver considered what the holiday might be like in Noel, Michigan. But instead she called a local food and gift store in a town in southern Michigan called Hell. Christmas in Hell sounded more interesting.

(SOUND: Phone ringing)

KAREN: "Hell in a Handbasket. Yes, hell has frozen over. This is Karen. How can I help you?"

That is Karen Haigh, an employee of a store called Hell in a Handbasket. Hell had indeed frozen over -- Ms. Haigh said it was minus-seven Celsius. And it felt even colder because of the wind.

But apparently not too cold for Christmas shoppers. Karen Haigh said several had been in so far that day. Candles and t-shirts from Hell are always popular. But she says there is another popular Christmas item that can only be made in Hell -- Hell, Michigan.

KAREN HAIGH: "We're an official U.S. post office. And we stamp all of our post cards, 'Been through Hell' and we burn actually them before they go out. Every piece of mail gets burned."

REPORTER: "Do people ever ask for their Christmas cards to go through the post office in Hell?"

KAREN HAIGH: "I've actually done over three hundred Christmas cards this week."

(MUSIC)

FAITH LAPIDUS: Our program was written and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.

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