For a trio of Marietta High School exchange students from Europe, Tuesday was their first Christmas in America.
But for Elif Olmez, of Turkey, it was her first Christmas ever.
The 16-year-old Muslim from Istanbul never celebrated the holiday before coming to spend the school year at the home of Jay and Stassa Phillips. By Tuesday though, she'd joined in lighting a candle on an advent wreath, made ornaments for the tree, attended a Christmas Eve service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church and opened gifts on Christmas morning.
EVAN BEVINS The Marietta Times
Marietta resident Stassa Phillips, second from right, embraces Antonia Kubeneck, an exchange student from Berlin, Tuesday after giving her and Swedish student Molly Josefson, second from left, Christmas presents as Italian student Camilla Berti, left, and Turkish student Elif Olmez watch with their own gifts.
"It's so nice. It's really so nice," Olmez said. "I just love the atmosphere that the family is here, everyone is together, everyone is so happy."
Olmez and housemate Camilla Berti, 17, of Pesaro, Italy, are the 16th and 17th high schoolers the Phillipses have welcomed into their home over more than 20 years with American Field Service, the country's oldest student exchange organization. Seeing children experience Christmas for the first time in a new country - or the first time, period - isn't new to them, but it's something they still enjoy.
"Their reactions are what's the most fun," said Stassa Phillips, 57.
At a glance
Countries represented by American Field Service exchange students at Marietta High School
Source: Phillips family.
Olmez and Berti were part of the family on Christmas morning, opening presents with the Phillipses, their adult daughter, Anna, and her boyfriend, Cesare Ciaccio. The girls even received a note from Santa Claus, written in several different languages.
During an interview Tuesday afternoon alongside Berti and two other exchange students, Olmez pointed out that she may be a Christmas rookie, but she's hardly unfamiliar with Santa Claus.
"Saint Nicholas is from (the) southern part of my country," she said. "From those lands, but from (a) different culture."
Antonia Kubeneck, 16, of Berlin, said she thought the popular American image of a jolly, hefty fellow in a red coat and white beard traced its origins to ads for the Coca Cola company. Olmez said that may be, but the original inspiration "was a skinny religious guy living in Turkey."
According to the St. Nicholas Center, a website and traveling exhibit dedicated to providing resources and information about Saint Nicholas, Saint Nicholas was indeed an early bishop in a part of the region under Greek control in the fourth century and is known as the patron saint of children and sailors.
Santa Claus was one of the more familiar parts of Christmas at the Phillips house for Berti. She noted that in Italy, her family usually opens presents at midnight on Christmas Eve.
"But, like, Santa Claus is always the same, and we always have to leave cookies," she said.
Kubeneck and Molly Josefson, a 17-year-old from Orebro, Sweden - both of whom are staying with the Ferguson family in Marietta - said they too are used to celebrating more on the 24th than the 25th.
Kubeneck did both this year.
"I actually opened presents on Skype with my family" Monday night, she said.
Since she's nearing adulthood, Josefson said she didn't mind holding off on the gifts until Christmas morning, but Monday was a little odd since she and Kubeneck still had swim practice on a day devoted mostly to family back home.
"It was not hard to wait, but it was just weird," she said.
Josefson said she missed her family, but she thought the homesickness was going to be worse than it actually turned out being.
"It was good because we had a family also here," Berti said.
The lack of snow on Christmas was another change for Josefson, but for Kubeneck, it was par for the course.
"We always have a little bit before and a lot after, but never on Christmas," she said.
Next up on the American holiday calendar are New Year's Eve and Day, which all four girls said they celebrate to varying degrees in their home countries.
"We always ... start programming things for New Year's two months ahead," Berti said, adding that it sometimes involves renting a house and staying with friends.
Olmez said she usually has dinner with her family on New Year's Eve, but afterward, "if you are, like, a teenager, you go out with your friends."
Josefson and Kubeneck said fireworks are part of the welcoming of the new year in their countries.