Some people just don't look forward to Christmas the way they used to. Oh, they go through the motions - the tree goes up, the presents get wrapped - but somehow it's no quite the same without kids in the house. Since there are no Rent-a-Kid companies around, consider having a foreign student over. You get the same joy in seeing wonderment and enthusiasm as the traditions are revealed.
If the idea intrigues you, the thing to remember, the expects say, is to be yourself - do what you'd normally do and let the student be part of your life, rather than changing yours to fit some preconceived notion.
Larry Prince, a 32-year-old bachelor who invited his first foreign student about four years ago, now jokes about his well-meaning attempts to make his guest feel at home. When he got the call that a British college student wanted to spend a few days in an American home, he went out and combed the tea-and-crumpet shelf at the supermarket. But when the young man arrived, there was an awkward pause as he surveyed the array of loose teas, herbal teas, tea cakes and cookies Prince had laid out.
"Finally he just looked at me," Prince recalls, "and said, 'I can't stand it - do you have any beer?' Now I just serve what I'd normally have."
Prince, an administrative assistant with the Office of Management and Budget, has since invited in more than 30 students from at least a dozen countries and is now a master at putting his visitors at ease. He thinks his bachelordom is one of the secrets of his success: "I don't have an extremely neat house, and I think that's one of the things that helps make them more comfortable."
Prince is one of a cabre of volunteers that the Foreign Student Service Council, a non-profit organization specializing in bringing families and students together, calls on to host foreign students year-round. Christmas is a peak season, and Les McBee, the director, is now "floating on a sea of applications" from students who want to discover what it's really like to live as an American.
There's no shortage of them - Georgetown, George Washington, American and Catholic Universities alone have around 4,150 full-time foreign students, and there are also older, government-sponsored students who come to Washington for further training in their specialities. Whatever their age and background, most are intensely curious to see how Americans celebrate the holidays.
Dr. Robert Fox, director of AU's English Language Institute, asks every year for names of students who'd like to have Christmas dinner with an American family. He always gets a big response.
"Most of these students want to learn what American life is really all about. They want to learn about American cilivization and culture, so they do take advantage of the offer when it is made."
McBee agrees with Prince that it's essentail "not to treat them like guests. Most are very, very interested in becoming part of an American family for a short while, so have them help you set the table, wash the dishes or rake the leaves. Don't put them on a little pedestal - if you treat them like an observer they'll just feel alienated."
As a Japanese student wrote her prospective hosts: "The purpose of this trip of mine is to get to know more about the real American family life.So I don't expect the best from you. If you eat sandwiches or humburgers [sic] every day that is fine; don't serve me fancy meals that you don't often eat. And if you don't usually clean your house over a month, don't clean it just before I visit you. Please don't show me any pretension . . ."