When the Rev. Thomas Healy arrived at his assigned parish, St. Joseph Catholic Church, he found a diverse congregation.
The Irish Catholic priest left a post in a Hispanic ministry in Waycross, Ga., in September. He arrived in Augusta to find not only English services each Sunday but also Mass in Korean and Spanish.
At Christmas, the diversity of the congregation is amplified as immigrants from around the world integrate traditions from home into their celebrations in Augusta.
"Countries tend to differ with their traditions, you know," the Rev. Healy said. "And yet, the beauty of Christmas Day is we celebrate the same thing."
The Rev. Max Guzman moved to Augusta a month ago, which presents him with a bit of a challenge. Most of his Mexican Christmas traditions involve big gatherings of family and community.
"It's part of the holiday, more so than it is even in America, to be all together," he said.
The Rev. Guzman grew up in Mexico City. He moved to the United States for college at Howard Payne University, where he married a Texan, Jacqueline. The couple are working with the Augusta Association of Baptist Churches to lead a new Hispanic ministry in Grovetown.
The Guzmans and their three children -- ages 9, 6 and 2 -- like to continue Mexican traditions.
"It's unusual for a Mexican family not to have lights," the Rev. Guzman said. "No matter what your income, people have lots and lots of lights. The decorations are always bright and festive. We always had pinatas at Christmas. It was just the way you celebrated the birth of Jesus."
The nine days before Christmas are dedicated to Posada, a re-enactment of Mary and Joseph's search for shelter.
"People move from home to home. Children ask for little coins or food at the door," the Rev. Guzman said.
Gifts are given on Christmas Day, but the real presents don't come out until January.
When he was growing up, the Rev. Guzman said, "We received just a small gift on Dec. 25. You got the big bicycle on Jan. 6. That's when we celebrate Three Kings Day."
He usually waits to shop until Christmas is over.
"You go to the stores and they're full of Hispanics, because we haven't given our gifts yet," he said.
Another tradition involves leaving a shoe under the Christmas tree Jan. 5.
"You have to have one shoe under there as your representative if you want a gift," he said.
Christmas Eve has a similar tradition, he said:
"You leave a letter for Santa, or sometimes the schools have a project where they wrap the letter up in a balloon and let it go. They say Santa will find it, but if you don't do that, you can still give it to your father and he'll get it to the big guy."
The festivities and fuss of Christmas in America take time to get accustomed to, said Cecelia K. Urch, a South Korean who married an American and moved to the U.S. 25 years ago. She's one of about 70 who attend the Korean Catholic Community Mass at St. Joseph.
"Growing up, we didn't exchange gifts. Christmas just isn't as common. The celebrations aren't as big," she said. "When we do celebrate, it's more similar than people realize. Christmas in Korea is just smaller. You never see Christmas decorations on the outside of a house in Korea."
About a quarter to a third of South Koreans are Christian. New Year's Eve tends to draw more celebrants, Mrs. Urch said.
"Christmas Eve you spend at the church," she said. "There's singing, and there's always dancing."
In Korea and in Augusta, Mrs. Urch spends Christmas Day -- and sometimes night -- with family.
"We get together and celebrate all night. We'd get to talking and stay up," she said.
On Christmas, Mrs. Urch will cook a meal just a bit larger than usual, but she says it never occurred to her to leave food out for Santa, who in Korea is often called Santa Haraboji, or Santa grandfather.
"I didn't know people actually did that," she said.
In Ireland, it's not uncommon to leave Guinness or mincemeat pie out for Santa, although, growing up, the Rev. Healy never left anything for Santa, either.
The celebrations in Ireland, he said, are just as lively as they are here, full of decorations, food and music. Gifts, however, are less of an ordeal.
"In Ireland, we would leave a stocking, but it was never so prominent. In Ireland, in my time, things were modest," said the priest, who left home in 1967. "It was a family day. It was a day to stay at home. The peace and calm of Christmas Eve is very moving."
That inspires him today to lead a simple holiday.
"It's a very hectic time for a priest. If I can get to Conyers (where there is a Catholic monastery) a day or two before, I go just to be still," he said. "I want a peaceful Christmas, like I grew up with."
Reach Kelly Jasper at (706) 823-3552 or email@example.com.
NAMES FOR SANTA
Papai Noel - Brazil
Shengdan Laoren - China
Father Christmas - England
Pere Noel - France
Saint Nikolaus - Germany
Babbo Natale - Italy
Sinterklaas - Netherlands
Ded Moroz - Russia
ON THE CHRISTMAS TABLE
BELGIUM: Cougnou, a sweet bread baked in the form of a swaddled baby
CUBA: Roast pig, corn pudding, plantains and rice
ENGLAND: Mince pies, sausage and Christmas pudding
GERMANY: Roasted goose, cabbage and potatoes
ITALY: A feast of seven fish dishes
NORWAY: Pork ribs, rutabaga and cabbage, creamed rice
SPAIN: Lobster, roast lamb, fish soup
A GIFT FOR SANTA
AUSTRALIA: Sherry and mince pies
DENMARK: Rice pudding and milk
IRELAND: Guinness and mince pies
SPAIN: Shoes of straw