Expat Christmas Stories
Moving abroad presents you with a world of new experiences, but sometimes you just want to hang on to tradition. Holidays can be one of the most difficult elements to rectify between your old life and the new. We've covered the different ways holidays like Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, Ramadan, and St.Patrick's Day may be observed by expats, but what about Christmas?
My Christmas as an expat in Berlin looks distinctly different than it did as a Seattleite. Before I moved abroad, I would get a Christmas tree and decorate the apartment early in the month. Christmas movies and songs were on heavy rotation, and gift shopping was on in full. Seattle also gets in the mood, with lights decorating the Needle and downtown, and the pigs above Pike Place Market donning Santa caps. For Christmas day, I usually left the city for my hometown and enjoyed family specialties like Candy Cane bread. Gift opening on Christmas Day was a leisurely affair, ending in a trip to the movie theatre. Not completely traditional, but for my small family of three it was perfect.
Christmas in Berlin plays out completely different - torn between embracing new German customs and finding our own traditions. The month is filled with friends and christmas markets and Berlin's icy demeanor dethaws a bit as the weather grows ever colder. Germany seems to know this is it's time and the whole country is in celebration mode. However, as Christmas day approaches Germans and expats return to their hometowns and families and my husband and I are left on our own wondering "What is Christmas without family?"
As this is our thrid Christmas in Germany, we are still figuring out what we like to do best. This includes making a giant feast of our favorite foods (hello Christmas scallops and Mexican food), attending midnight mass at the Berliner Dom (cathedral), and traveling. Last year we went to Paris as a gift to ourselves, and this year we visited nearby Dresden and its legendary Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market).
Our new Christmas traditions continue to evolve as we have a friend from the States joining us as he is experiencing expat life for the first time teaching in Iraq. We will share traditions from home and our very different stories of life abroad. Though of course I still miss my family in the States, expat life can not only be an opportunity to build new traditions, but new family.
Expat Christmas Plans
This is my first Christmas as an expat in Bangkok. Despite the abundance of Christmas trees around, the 34 degree weather is making it a little hard for me to believe it's that wonderful time of year, although the advent calendar my mum has sent across from the UK is helping! We are planning a morning by the pool perhaps with a bottle of bubbly, then there's a group of about 20 of us heading off to a UK themed pub in the afternoon to make the most of traditional Roast Turkey and all the trimmings along with the typical starters and puddings! I am looking forward to the expat Christmas experience!
This Christmas will definitely be special for me because I'm living in Slovakia and not the United States. I will travel to Brussels and Amsterdam and spend the week seeing those cities and cultures through different eyes. I've been living in Slovakia for almost six months and I'm amazed by my new country and its people everyday. This has been a wonderful adventure and I look forward to the New Year.
Kiwi in Russia
Our First Real Christmas
As Kiwis our Christmas falls in the middle of summer (although for the past 10 or so years has felt more like the start of summer, with the changing weather patterns). We greet Christmas, with BBQ's, swimming and back yard cricket tests. We run around in shorts, tee-shirts and barefeet, have water fights with the pump action water guns the kids get as presents, and will doze off in the shade after a hearty lunch and a few too many beers or local wines, before heading to someone else's house or have others descend on your house to eat the leftovers for tea (dinner for some of you). While it is all good fun, it all seems rather unreal celebrating what is traditionally depicted as a winter event in the summer.
So this year we get to celebrate our first Northern Hemisphere Christmas, in fact we get to celebrate twice and in two countries. Firstly we head to England to renew our Russian visas a few days before Christmas so will be celebrating Christmas lunch on our own at a pub in London. Hopefully we will be able to enjoy some of the Christmas carols being held in one of the large cathedrals on Christmas Eve or a Christmas mass if we are close enough to one.
After returning from England in early January, we get to celebrate the Russian Christmas on January 7th, so on this day we may get out and about and see if we can take in a mass in one of the old Russian Cathedrals.
The lead up to Christmas here in Moscow is very different to home as well, as the kids go out and enjoy playing in the snow, and the city really gets into the Christmas spirit, there is an ice rink in Red Square along with a huge tree and another even bigger one due to go up shortly, lots of lights and Christmas music ringing out through the square, it really does feel like a fairy tale Christmas for us Kiwis.
Apparently when you leave the country and start a new life somewhere else, you officially become a grown up. What this means for me is no more Christmases being fawned over by distant relatives whilst I make no contribution to the festivities other than my dazzling presence (not presents) and passing the mince pies, and instead having to organise something myself. I even have to Cook. Christmas. Dinner. The horror.
So, this year will consist of a very sophisticated Christmas Eve spent with my equally scared 'kids in grownup bodies' friends drinking local wines, dipping crusty Maltese loaves in oil (in the words of Micky Flanagan- when did oil become a treat?!), munching on stollen, attempting to eat olives without spitting them right back out and putting too much tinsel EVERYWHERE to make up for the lack of snow. Christmas Day- said friends will reappear- they don't know this yet but I'll have one person each cooking one component of Christmas dinner (no such thing as a free lunch guys, you gotta work for it!) and drinking more limoncello than is recommended when operating an oven.
In short, I'm pretty sure it'll be the best Christmas ever. And I'm terrified!
As an Aussie expat of Filipino heritage, past Christmases for me have always been about big extended family gatherings with lots of good Filipino food and an Aussie barbecue! Christmas Eve was always at the family home and Christmas day at the beach or park. As the song goes, "Christmas in Australia's hot, cold and frosty is what it's not".
This Christmas will be spent in Mayerhofen in Austria with my friends. It's the absolute opposite of last Christmas because we will be staying in a chateaux for Christmas Eve, eating delicious Austrian food followed by skiing or snow boarding activities. It's my first white Christmas so I am very excited!
This year, we will attempt to recreate my husband's family's traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes Italian dinner, with a little Turklish flair, of course. We will celebrate Christmas Eve and Day with our expat friends and their Turkish spouses in Istanbul.
Normally, our expat Christmas in the U.S. entails plane-hopping from Istanbul to NYC to Nebraska to North Carolina to Pennsylvania to New Jersey and back to NYC. Sure, it's nice to see all our family members and friends in a short span of time, but it's also an exhausting, stressful experience. That's why I'm happy to celebrate Christmas in Istanbul this year.
We live in a very small village in Romania, and for most of the year we try to live a typical Romanian village life, growing our own produce, joining in the local festivals and being with the locals at the village bar. I think that this will probably be in great contrast to many expats who live in the larger cities and spend most of their time with other expats.
Christmas, though, obviously is different. We all like to share and celebrate Christmas in our own way, and the way we became used to when back in the UK with our families. There are distinct contrasts in the way we like to do it and the way the locals do, and it is the topic of many a conversation over a drink in the bar. The village is dominated by a small church which sits on the hill above all other buildings, and the Romanian Orthodox traditions dominate how many of our village friends still celebrate the festive season.
For them it starts on Dec 6th, St Nicholas day, and the start of Advent, a day which has many traditions of it's own. Tradition has it that between the beginning of Lent and Christmas Eve they refrain from all meat and fish, and break the fast on the evening of Christmas Eve by eating vast amounts of Pork, and over the last couple of weeks we have heard many of the pigs in the village being slaughtered and prepared in readiness.
We will try to maintain our own, very British style of Christmas. There are many things that we are used to having at Christmas that we can't get here, so we make them. More about the Romanian Village Christmas on their blog.
We are currently in Cape Town, temperatures in the 30s, 6 days till christmas and no sign of urgency.
Shops and TV don't force Christmas as a time of buying and giving. The decorations are up and gifts are in the shops, but to be honest it just feels like they've been left over from the winter months and no one can be bothered to take them down. I assume it's a similar feeling for expats from the Southern Hemisphere that have moved north, where they replace their flip flops for Wellington Boots. Christmas here feels more like a time for family, friends, entertainment and fine wines and food. Go to Chickenruby's blog for a full post on Christmas in the Sun.
Having lived in Spain for so long and due to the fact that our children are still young, we find every excuse to go totally over the top at holiday times and Christmas is no exception. (post form last year - http://familylifeinspain.com/going-over-the-top-12-days-til-christmas/ )
As we do not want the children to think that Christmas is only fun and a special occasion in the UK, we now spend every alternative Christmas in the UK with family and the other year here at home, in Spain. Although Christmas has become more celebrated (or maybe I should say more commercialised) in Spain over the past few years, it is easier to enjoy the traditional Christmas we grew up with as children in the UK.
This year we will be in the UK where we will no doubt be over indulging in food and drink for the duration of our stay. The children will meet up with all their grandparents, cousins and second cousins, some of whom they haven't seen for two years … needless to say there have been a few new arrivals since then! They will receive more gifts than if we were staying in Spain. Great for them but another stress for parents weighing suitcases before the flight home. Bah humbug. I'm sorry! Roll on next year when we will enjoy our family Christmas in Spain in our own home. Who will join us? We don't know yet but there is never a shortage of visitors. When we celebrate Christmas in Spain we enjoy the best of both worlds. On Christmas eve the children lay out stockings by the fireplace. We leave a letter for Santa along with a glass of Malaga Dulce and a homemade mince pie and of course a carrot for Rudolph. Once the children are safely tucked up on bed, Hubby and myself enjoy the Spanish delights of a mixed plate of Spanish cold meats: jamon, lomo, choriozo and cured cheeses accompanied by a glass or two of anis.
Christmas morning is stocking surprises opened and maybe a few small gifts from beneath the tree, a bucks fizz fried breakfast , a huge roast dinner with all the trimmings and usual British deserts ( I buy the Jamie Oliver Christmas Magazine every year!) Coffees and home made chocolates. Then it is the main exchange of presents before a few odd siestas and if we get round to it, a trip down to the seafront to walk off some of the calories! Boxing day is usually spent with friends but then everything returns to normality pretty quickly. Until Día de los Reyes that is ... living in Spain, we cannot not celebrate that now can we!
So wherever we are, we are surrounded by friends and family and are guaranteed to have a fantastic time … ¡Felizes Fiestas a todos!
There are few times in life when I believe it is appropriate for a group of friends to wear bright and matching outfits, disregard the personal space and solitude of others in public and obnoxiously sing childish songs while moving from one drinking establishment to the next. One of these times would have to be Seoul Santacon.
A few short weeks ago I made my way into Seoul along with a couple hundred other holiday revelers to socialize, sing and sip soju for an evening. I thought I was festively prepared donning a red scarf and Rudolph ears, but I was surprised to find most people decked head to toe in Santa garb. After a few drinks at Beer O’Clock in Sinchon, Seoul’s center of young nightlife, a sea of red and white slowly made its way to a nearby subway station where soju was shared and merriment had. Koreans armed with smartphones proudly captured the chaotic scene of Santas singing off-key and sometimes incomplete Christmas songs. I never thought Rudolph could be butchered so gruesomely. With a group so large, some songs were commenced and quickly forgotten when other lyrics drifted onto the scene. The caroling petered out when the subway reached Hongdae and we made our way to the appropriately named HO Bar (" Ho Ho Ho! " ) where we danced, mingled and listened to Mariah repeatedly inform us of her Christmas list.
Although the night was one of this winter’s coldest (so far) and we spent most of it inside bars and clubs, I most enjoyed the short half hour of travel from Sinchon to Hongdae via the Seoul Metropolitan Subway. Being an expat in Korea can sometimes be a bit lonely, but a tipsy and merry song and dance to and through the subway with a family of fellow foreigners leaves one feeling joyous and determined to spread the holiday spirit. Because we all know: *The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.*
I would divulge more detail of the social movements through the bars and clubs of Hongdae, but Santa told me to be good for goodness sake…
American in Chile
As for Christmas, this year I will be spending it with family. But I have had, what I consider to be, a true expat Christmas before. For my first Christmas in Chile my roommates and I had a party in our apartment that was basically open to the public. All expats were welcome as well as anyone simply traveling through. We ended up celebrating Christmas will people from 15 different countries and 5 different continents. It was definitely a very memorable evening.
Christmas brings to mind the scent of pine from a freshly cut tree, decked out with blinking lights and streaming with silver tinsel. My mind reflects back to my childhood: sitting in the recliner analyzing the two inch thick catalog trying to decide what to ask Santa for; writing and re-writing that letter to Santa; and getting to see him on the local small town fire truck passing out a brown lunch bag full of candy. Yes, those were my times of innocence, when the world seemed like one large popcorn ball – sweet and good. Small town life can be like that to a young child.
I’m grown now with kids of my own. My family doesn’t have the luxury of a real pine tree with all the trimming that I remember as a child, but we have a “fake” tree with lights and ornaments that tell stories from years past. As expats, my family has spent Christmas in various countries. My husband and I realized early in our marriage how important it was to set family traditions. So, to remember our first and only Christmas together in Tianjin, China we bought our first ornament, a hand-painted glass ball with the city and date printed on it. The second Christmas, while traveling through Austria, we picked up a hand-painted glass bell. Thus began our family Christmas tradition of collecting ornaments to remember each year. Our three children listen to stories from Christmases past as each of the ornaments make its way to the tree.
This year’s ornament will have its own memories from Taiwan. Though we’ve celebrated here before, we will make new memories to build a story around next year. Some of the story will include almost losing a baby goat in a crowd of Chinese while participating as a shepherd in a Living Nativity. I’m sure we’ll have stories from the Weihnachtsmarkt, because there has to be a story of a German Christmas Market in Asia. After all the parties and fun though, I hope that my children remember the stories from their time volunteering with a Christmas party for the local special education classroom. And from this experience, that they would see that true joy comes from giving, not receiving. And hopefully that this joy of giving would become a new family tradition.
This is our first Christmas in Berlin (even though we've been celebrating Christmas' in Germany for the past 11 years) and my in-laws will be coming up to celebrate with us and our 4-year-old daughter. Berlin offers an amazing opportunity to visit Christmas markets of all sizes and genres, so we'll be visiting several of them leading up to Christmas. And on Christmas Eve, we usually take a little walk while we await the arrival of the Christkind, get dressed up nicely, open presents and enjoy a big home cooked meal together. Then on Christmas morning, which is when my family in America traditionally opens gifts, our daughter will get to open another round of presents since she is blessed by many friends and family and can't possibly devote her attention to all of the presents at once. Regardless of whether there is snow or not, we do our best to devote the holidays to enjoying time with family and remembering the real reason for this season -- not just a gift-giving frenzy.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everybody!