A Totally Different Festive Season

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hannukah or not, there are a number of things to get your head around the festive season when living abroad.  There is no year that this has been truer than this.  But, not being in your native country can be an amazingly enriching experience, whilst bringing up some mixed emotions.

father christmas or santa beach australia expat

I remember our first Australian Christmas when the kids were very small and my attempts to bring over all our UK traditions, particularly the food ones. I spent half the day in the kitchen cooking a roast while it was 30+ degrees outside, having to eat it cooling rapidly under the air conditioning as it was too hot in the sun.  And then vowing never to do that again.  I then went on to saying that I wanted to do every Christmas differently (as I knew I couldn’t replicate my childhood Christmas). Before coming around a bit, so we ended up doing our Christmas roast on Christmas Eve for dinner and a seafood feast for Christmas day. Our traditions merged and emerged.

We never quite know how the festive season will be in a new country, or indeed how we will react!  A British friend of mine recently told me that she went from never watching the Queen’s Christmas Day speech whilst living in the UK, to watching it religiously after moving to Costa Rica.   The sense of British nostalgia and making it more Christmassy can be a pull for us all.

I could never get used to it being hot for Christmas though, Christmas on the beach?  Christmas by the pool?  It never felt like a proper Christmas, no matter how many decorations we put up and what songs we played.  And the thing that I struggled with most was that the kids would grow up associating Christmas with summer and not the cold, often dreary time of year that it is in the northern hemisphere.  Traipsing around the shops in your damp coats, gloves and scarves, getting a hot chocolate to warm yourself up, then going having a fire and maybe even roasting some chestnuts.  None of this get out your surfboard malarkey. 

british street in snow expat

To make matters even more confusing, the Australian Christmas cards and paraphernalia still had images that we associate with Christmas – snowmen, robins, sledging, really?  In Australia?  I could never get my head around that.  But, it did make us appreciate going back to the UK for Christmas even more (well, me at least) and seeing the lights in Regent Street and the Christmas windows and displays, the tv programmes and films, the food – all my childhood memories.  But we learnt to embrace a hot Aussie Christmas with friends and make new memories for our kids.

Meanwhile Costa Rica (where we moved to next) is pretty hot year round, so yet again we were seemingly spoilt for Christmas, but similarly I felt confused!  That said, it is obviously not all about the weather, we also got to learn some interesting traditions from this part of the world.  My favourite being invited to make tamales with a Costa Rican/British family. 

Tamales Banana leaves
The finished product, ready to steam and eat

Tamales are a very traditional Costa Rican Christmas dish and comprise of a starchy dough filled with meat, some veg, sometimes prunes, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.  Doesn’t sound too complicated eh?  They take many, many hours to make – to prepare the corn starch properly alone is a lengthy and very specialised business.   First, we sat around 7 of us, a bit like the extended families do in the towns and villages, to prepare the banana leaves.  We passed them around our circle, where we each had a task to either wash or wipe or dry them, chatting and laughing as we went.  This is what Christmas is all about!  Believe it or not this took at least a couple of hours alone!  At this point the kids left!   We then had to get all the ingredients ready to start putting them together – someone to put in the masa (dough) then someone for the meat, veg, etc etc.  The kids drifted in and out, as family and friends would do, sometimes the whole village (we would learn) to make this Latin American encapsulation of all that is Christmas.  After nearly 8 hours (I think) we had a lot of tamales and I was left with a memory that I maybe didn’t think too much of at the time, but now I am so grateful that I got to be part of.

Inside a tamale
This is one that we made too!

And that is just one of the many joys of experiencing a new culture, new traditions, wherever we are at Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year.  Whatever we celebrate and wherever we are, it is a privilege to witness and be part of it.

Finding it hard to be apart from friends and family, yep been there too – check out this post here.

Please do let me know about Christmas memories and stand out moments you have experienced around the globe, any particular traditions you have or miss? Anything that you have felt especially fortunate to be part of? Where will you be spending the festive season this year. Would love to hear from you……

Photo credits:
Santa beach – Photo by Lynda Hinton
Snow UK – Photo by Matthias Kinsella

2 comments on “A Totally Different Festive Season”

  1. Heather says:

    I will never forget the Kiev Christmas when D and I went to work on the 25th. Orthodox Christmas being in January, we decided to have a small Christmas – swap gifts but then go to work.
    In many ways it was a surreal experience, all our local colleagues were treating it, correctly, as just another day in the office. I think we were the first expats that did not take the day off.
    We did book a lovely restaurant dinner for the evening and celebrated with a bottle (or maybe two!). Of course we also managed celebrations in January, so I got a second present too!! It’s more than 10 years ago but still a great memory.

    1. Emma Lees says:

      That is a cool and very different experience – good on you for going ‘local’ and embracing the 25th in a different way. Like you say treating it as a Ukrainian would you a totally different Christmas and memory (also glad you milked it for double presents, though!)

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