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Dec. 18, 2013

As the carol goes, “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams…”

The lyrics ring especially true for junior center Sarah Imovbioh who left her home nation of Nigeria in 2008 to pursue her basketball dreams in the United States.

“Christmas is the biggest holiday back home,” Imovbioh said. “We go to church in the morning and then we come back and our parents cook food. You can smell that rice. The smell of the food, to me, it is the biggest part of Christmas, other than church. It is very different in Nigeria on Christmas, though. The weather is calm. It rains some, but it is not super hot. It’s around 80 degrees. Given that it can be 120 there, that is pretty nice weather.”

Like many people reminiscing about being home for the holidays, food plays a large role in Imovbioh’s recollections, mostly because food plays a very central role in the Christmas celebration in her homeland. It is a Nigerian custom that instead of giving gifts, people exchange food.

“One household takes their food and gives it to another household and they, in return, give us their food,” Imovbioh said. “Most of the time, we give it to our closet neighbor, or you can give it to someone that has done something special for you, because it is a sign of love. I can remember one year, there was a woman who sold oranges. When my mom would come home from work, the woman always said `Hi’ to my mom and was nice to her, so during Christmas, my mom would cook rice and have me give it to the orange-seller.”

The presentation is simple, but one that requires much forethought and planning.

“We put it all in a special bowl when we give food to people,” Imovbioh said. “All year long, we think about Christmas and we save the cleanest and best bowl to exchange. It is a sign of respect.”

Preparing and cooking Christmas dinner is a three-day experience, especially when one is making Imovbioh’s favorite dish, a stew of rice and goat meat. The goat meat takes time to cook down, but even before getting to the point of roasting it, the men of the family have other tasks to perform.

“Everyone has their own job when it comes to preparing the food,” Imovbioh said. “My older brothers, Richard and Phillip, would be in charge of killing our goat and washing it. My older sister, Grace, and I were in charge of making a drink called Zobo. We grew the (Roselle) leaves and then would boil them in hot water until a red liquid came out. Then we add sugar.”

Another careful preparation came with the making of the salad.

“The salad is made with cabbage, but you have to cut it in a certain shape,” Imovbioh explained. “The shape really matters, so you work hard at it. It is like a circle that goes from big down to small. The elderly take the big part and the children take the small part.”

Houses are decorated for the holiday with stings of lights. In her home city of Abuja, Christmas trees and the Santa Claus tradition are not embraced, but there is one other very important tradition that is very exciting for young and old.

“We know, that on Christmas Day, you have to put on new clothes,” Imovbioh said. “That is the biggest thing. Your attire has to be different and every parent buys new attire for their kids to wear. I can still remember when I was seven, my mom bought me this dress. It was like a Cinderella gown. It was pink. It was by far the best.”

When the 16-year-old Imovbioh arrived in Charlottesville in November of 2008, she had only been in the country less than six weeks before experiencing her first American Christmas, and her first visit from Santa Claus while living with the Stinnie family, her American guardians.

“When I first came, it was tricky to understand,” Imovbioh said. “I thought in America, there was a real Santa. My [guardians] kept telling me, you need to go to bed and that Santa would come and there would be presents and a big tree and it was all so crazy and so much. I remember opening the window that night, because they said [Santa] walks around, so I left it open for him. And I left him some cookies. Then when I woke up, it was [Phil] Stinnie! I was like `Really?’ It was all so weird, but I was really surprised and it is so fun. You get a lot of stuff, so I thought it was cool. My first Christmas, I got my first Nike basketball shoes. I really liked those.”

Of course, Christmas isn’t all about getting presents. It is about home and family and traditions, the American versions of which Imovbioh has learned to embrace in the five years she has lived in Charlottesville.

“What I really love about Christmas here is all of the family coming together, because it reminds me of home,” Imovbioh said. “When everyone [in her guardian’s family] is together, I really don’t feel affected that I am not home in Nigeria. I love the atmosphere when everyone is together, eating good food. That really helps me a lot.”

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