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December 24, 2013

Expatriates try to adapt elements of home for Christmas

WASHINGTON — All Esessien Offiong wants for Christmas — or at least for his Nigerian Christmas stew — is antelope. But the stores in his Laurel, Md., neighborhood don't carry African game, so Offiong and his family will do what they do every year: Wing it.

"We have learned that goat meat is a pretty good substitute for antelope," Offiong, a federal pension agency staffer, said with a Santa-worthy laugh. "You have to improvise when you are far from home, but we find ways to have a very Nigerian Christmas."

Such are the holidays in Washington, where one in five residents are foreign born and immigrants and expats improvise, import and adapt Christmas traditions from all over the world. Even in the age of Internet shopping, global trade and Pier 1, decking the halls can be an effort if you want to deck them with straw "yule goats" (Swedes), defecating manger shepherds (Catalonians) or bamboo-and-tissue parol stars (Filipinos).

"People come in every year asking for them," said Emma Bioc, co-owner of Manila Mart, a Filipino grocery in Beltsville, Md. She tries to lay in a few locally made parol stars each December, but her usual supplier hadn't been around this year.

There's better news for local Filipinos with visions of puto bumbong dancing in their heads: Come Dec. 24th, Bioc can guarantee a supply of the traditional Christmas cakes of purple rice and coconut. It's a welcome treat, especially for those finishing Simbang Gabi, the nine-day series of evening masses leading up to Christmas Eve, held at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oxon Hill and other area churches. "We always sell all we can make."

For Icelander Fridrik Jonsson, the annual ingredient hunt begins with a search for rock ptarmigan, a game bird more common to the mountains of the Arctic than the aisles of a Safeway.

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