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Celebrating a new tradition
Christmas grows with Vietnamese woman and family
A group of children participate in a Nativity during the Christmas program for the Vietnamese congregation at First Baptist Church on Green Street. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

As she stepped off the plane from Vietnam, 11-year-old Amy Bui looked past signs that made no sense and faces unlike her own. At the arrivals gate, she saw someone holding a piece of paper with her family's name on it.

This, she thought, must be home now.

After years of moving between Hong Kong refugee camps and her native Vietnam, Bui wasn't expecting a long stay.

"I was so little and I saw that we had to move so often," Bui said. "I was like this is just another place. We're probably going to stay here for a year."

Eleven years later, Bui and her family still call Gainesville home.

At First Baptist Church on Green Street, they've found a community filled with many others who are new to the United States and Christianity.

Christmas time for the Buis, as well as for many other Vietnamese families at the church, is a still a new tradition.

Bui's childhood was spent mostly in Hong Kong refugee camps, fenced-in facilities that she said felt like prison.

"There's no privacy at all," she said. "They have used blankets for curtains and they separate between beds."

At age 7, her family was forced to move back to
Vietnam where Bui and her sister shuffled between relatives houses.

When she was 11, her parents arranged to move to the United States with the help of a Georgia church.

"Everybody comes over here for a search of freedom," Bui said.

Her parents weren't any different and knew their daughters would receive a better education in America.
But the transition wasn't easy.

"I don't even know a word of English," Bui said. "And I went to school and the girls said ‘What's your name?' And I'm like, ‘What? What is she asking?' It was hard to adapt."

Today, she's studying nuclear medicine at the Medical College of Georgia and memories of her turbulent past seem far behind.

Christianity slowly became an important part of her life.
"You go to church and over time it becomes a habit," she said. "But then listening to what people were talking about at church, it makes sense and it brings you into a self center and you realize what it means to believe."

But holiday traditions don't run deep in her community, Bui said. The church celebrates the religious significance of Christmas as a community, but family holiday celebrations are small.

Compared to the Chinese New Year celebration, which has strong roots in the community and lasts for nearly a month, Christmas is a small dot on the calendar.

On Christmas Day, Bui's family will gather and exchange gifts. Adults give money to the kids, tucking it inside of envelopes that are red, the color of luck. And children give gifts to their elders as a sign of respect.

The day is spent cooking and eating, with the holiday meal made up mostly of seafood.

Other Christmas traditions in the Vietnamese community are mimicked from American culture, Bui said.

"They see people putting the Christmas tree up so they're just putting it up," she said. "What does a Christmas tree stand for? What does a gift stand for? We don't know that."

Sunday at First Baptist Church, the congregation held a Christmas program to celebrate the holiday's religious significance but also to foster a deeper understanding of the traditions.

With flickering candle lights in the church windows, Bui and her church choir sang Christmas hymns such as "Away in a Manger" and "Joy to the World" in their native tongue. Children dressed as angels and others representing wise men acted out a nativity scene.

Bui said she hopes the event inspired the community to find more personal ways to celebrate the holiday.

Traditions, she said, need to start somewhere.