Tables turned: Whose traditions need explaining now?

Often, in our work as folklorists, we meet immigrants from various parts of the world who have resettled in the United States. Our impulse is to focus on their cultural traditions — the music, dance, crafts, and annual celebrations they left behind and how they are managing to hold onto them while making their home in a new and foreign land.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that new immigrants would also wish to fit in, to understand what holdiays are celebrated here in America, what foods are typically served, or why certain decorations perennially appear.  Why is everybody roasting turkeys? What’s up with all the lights?  Who is the bearded guy in the big red suit? And why is everyone fixated with buying gifts?

And I suppose it’s also not surprising to learn that here in Lowell, within the Cambodian community, some believe that part of becoming “American” is learning to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. With the blurring of religious beliefs and commercialism, one can hardly blame them.

Along these lines, we were asked to address a group of Cambodian elders that were gathering at the  Coalition for a Better Acre for a holiday program. Everyone seemed to enjoy the lunch, which was a fitting mix of American and Asian dishes: roast turkey, sweet potatoes, corn, pickled mustard with pig ears, pad thai, and rice.

We had hosted some of these same Cambodian elders for a tour of Lowell National Historical Park in September. This time, we were meeting on their territory. CBA invited us to lunch and requested that we briefly explain the history and customs of Thanksgiving and Christmas to the mostly non-English speaking audience. David Blackburn did the honors, seen below holding a plate of turkey and sweet potatoes.

Turns out that hardly anyone in the audience was familiar with the Thanksgiving holiday. Christmas, on the other hand, many were aware of — and it would be difficult not to be, given how pervasive the marketing of the holiday is and the fact that schools and businesses are closed on December 25th. One man asked in Khmai, “What is the purpose of Christmas?” David offered this answer, “It depends on who you are.  For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of the savior, Jesus Christ.” Despite its Christian origins, the secular celebration of Christmas is ubiquitous in America. David spoke of the German origins of the Christmas tree and the custom of bringing evergreens into our homes at the darkest time of the year.

I wonder how many immigrants think all Americans celebrate Christmas regardless of their religious beliefs, cultural heritage, or family traditions. Hanukkah, Eid, and Kwanzaa fly just under the radar of mainstream American popular culture. Perhaps it is the immigrant’s remove from certain holidays, and their struggle to understand them, that is quintessentially the American experience. After all, it is the complexity of American diversity that makes this country what it is.

Cambodian elders tour Lowell National Historical Park

The Cambodian community has become an important part of Lowell’s ethnic urban history. During the 1980s, Lowell was one of a handful of official resettlement communities for Cambodian refugees fleeing war, genocide, and famine. Coming with little in the way of material wealth, many settled into a community known locally as “The Acre” — an area that has served as a gateway neighborhood for generations of immigrants coming to Lowell in search of a better life — Irish, Greeks, Poles, Scots, Portuguese, French Canadians, Italians, and Puerto Ricans. 

This section of Lowell got its name back in the 1840s when mill owners, who were concerned about having immigrant Irish workers living in their midst, donated an acre of land southwest of the city’s center. Today’s Acre is larger than its name implies and is home to many Camobodians. 

Last week, we hosted a group of Cambodian “elders” from the Coalition for a Better Acre  at Lowell National Historical Park. Chief of Cultural Resources David Blackburn pointed out the Acre and several Park and downtown destinations on an orientation map in the Visitor Center. 


Some members of the group had immigrated to Lowell in 1985, others more recently. Only two had visited Lowell National Historical Park, and no one had ridden the trolley. They were excited! 

Ranger Joanne Marcos shared Lowell’s history through stories of mill girls, labor conflicts, and new immigrants settling into ethnic enclaves — all of which were translated into Khmer by Rasy An, staff member at Coalition for a Better Acre, and Duey Kol, Assistant Director of Cultural Programming at the Park.

The group of visitors was especially animated when entering the Boott Cotton Mill Museum. Standing around a water-powered loom, one man recalled his mother weaving by hand in Cambodia. They marveled at how hard the mill girls worked, the heat and humidity, the long hours, the deafening roar and clack of machinery.

Our last stop was a visit to the Boarding House exhibit where they saw what the mill girls ate for breakfast, the tight sleeping quarters, and the clothing they wore. On the way out, we stopped briefly into the immigration exhibit — where the last panel of a timeline focused on some of Lowell’s more recent immigrants. There on the wall was a black and white photo from 1985 of a Cambodian family taken at the TWA terminal in Boston. One women in the group pointed to a man in the photo, who turned out to be her brother-in-law.  What a welcome surprise for them to see their story on the wall, for all to see.

This was the first of what we hope will be many interactions with the Cambodian community through our new partnership with the Coalition for a Better Acre. Through this visit with us, it was apparent that, despite the language barriers, they came away understanding Lowell’s importance in America’s industrialization and how they fit into the city’s story. In the future, the Park plans on nurturing relationships with other ethnic communities throughout the city.