CHARLESTON -- Everyone knows there's no place like home for the holidays, but what if you can't make it home? For German exchange student Dmitri Task, the next best thing is spending a good, old-fashioned family Christmas with his American host family.
"Dmitri's sharing his Christmas traditions with us," Task's host mother Debbie Balmer said. "Actually, we're blending both of our traditions together for the holidays."
Eighteen-year-old Task has been living with Balmer, her husband and their young son, Robbie, since August. Today the family is traveling to Balmer's sister's home in St. Louis to spend Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day will be spent in Charleston, where the Balmers have a few traditions within their own family.
"We always read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' and leave cookies and milk out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve -- and Dmitri will participate in all of that," Balmer said. "We'll open presents on Christmas Day and have the traditional Christmas dinner on Christmas Day, too."
The Balmers have made some Christmas cookies using German recipes, Balmer said. In addition to German traditions, they're also getting a taste of Russian Christmas traditions. "Dmitri's grandmother, who's from Russia, was visiting his parents in Germany, and she sent us some Russian candy," Balmer said. "The candy was a sweet, yellow and sugary nougat. You dip it in tea and eat it. It was really neat and delicious."
Task's family is originally from Russia and moved to Germany when he was 8 years old. He's fluent in Russian, German and English. And he's sharing some of his culture with the Balmers this year, especially during the holiday season.
Although German Christmas traditions, such as Christmas trees and decorations, are similar to the United States' traditions, there are some slight differences, Task noted. Take for instance St. Nicholas Day.
In America, children check their stockings for small gifts and candy on the morning of St. Nicholas Day, which is Dec. 6. In Germany, Task said, children clean and polish their shoes the night before and put them out for St. Nicholas Day. In the morning, they hope to find sweets in their shoes, he explained.
Also, Christmas is celebrated two days in Germany, Task said. They have what they call First Christmas on Dec. 25 and Second Christmas on Dec. 26, he explained.
Task hasn't seen his family since he came to America and won't be able to see them until the end of the school year. However, he's not letting it dampen his holiday spirit.
"It was hard in the beginning to be away from my family," Task said. "But it's not too hard now. We e-mail and call each other on the telephone often."
Before the Balmers or any family in the AYUSA (Academic Year in the United States) exchange student program, become a host family, they must go through extensive training. "We don't just dump kids off at people's houses," said Balmer, who is also the regional director of AYUSA. "We prepare them first so they know what to expect and how to handle situations."
Luckily, the Balmers make Task feel right at home. Balmer said her son and Task get along like brothers -- without the arguing.
"It's like my son has a big brother." Balmer said. "They're really close. They even tease each other and play around. Dmitri also has a brother the same age as my son."
Task is one of 13 students placed in Southeast Missouri through AYUSA. In addition to Germany, they are from Japan, Taiwan, China, Germany and Finland.
After Christmas, Task and the other AYUSA students will spend seven days in Los Angeles on an AYUSA sponsored trip. They leave Dec. 28 and return Jan. 3. Task will experience an American New Year's Eve in California. He said he's excited about the trip.
"He's great. We absolutely love him," Balmer said about Task. "I have a very large family. He likes everybody and everybody likes him. He's just like one of the family."