Before moving abroad, I never really thought about how different cultures celebrated the holiday season. I assumed (wrongly so) that everyone celebrated with a jolly Coca-Cola shaped Santa Claus and stockings hung on the fireplace. I didn’t think that my notion of Christmas was different compared with the Netherlands or Spain or elsewhere in the world. While there are commonalities in the ‘western part’ of the world, I’ve learned that the holiday traditions I’ve grown up with differ a bit from our European counterparts.
It may have thrown me off at first – for instance, I remember wondering what happened to the Santa Claus photo opportunities – but, I’ve found that I really enjoy celebrating the Christmas season abroad and here’s why.
If I haven’t mentioned this word before, shame on me. In Dutch (German and Danish also have similar words and maybe Norwegian and Swedish but I’m not yet an expert), this word is used to describe a cozy atmosphere. A week or so ago, my roommates – also expats – and I shared a Christmas dinner together, mixing some familiarity from our home countries and creating something entirely new. I prepared the latkes (famous Hanukkah tradition) and heated up the Glühwein (famous German tradition), and also decorated our €5 tree from the Hema; and my roommates cooked torrijas (usually served at Easter), empanadillas, stew, and salad. The latter of which was some of the best food I’ve had because the torrijas are a fancy version of American French toast, the stew reminded me of my grandmother, and the empanadillas were supposed to be children’s snacks but anything fried is delicious.
In the background, we listened to Michael Bublé and Mariah Carey, and blended it with some traditional Spanish music. I swear we didn’t listen to Feliz Navidad the whole time.
Outside of setting the scene, the point is that we laughed a lot, drank a lot, and ate a lot. With the lights dimmed low, the soft glow from the Christmas lights hanging from our tree and our bookcase, and the crooning and sometimes dance-worthy music playing, the dinner was very gezellig. And it was at this dinner that I was reminded of one of my favorite aspects of the winter season. Warmth and plenty of laughter
2. Cultural discoveries
Having experienced three winters abroad, I can easily say that every year I learn about new holiday traditions and I’ve yet to become bored. Last year, I became acquainted with Sinterklaas and the traditions surrounding this saint who hails from Spain on a steam ship with Piet (also known as controversial). To summarize, the Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas beginning mid-November and leading up to the main present-giving occasion on December the 5th, children leave out their shoes so that they can be filled with chocolate letters, pepernoten, speculaas, and marzipan, among other sweets from Sinterklaas. In exchange, Sinterklaas receives treats for his horse, which he rides on the rooftops of Dutch homes. On the evening of 5th December, the main gifts arrive (which were hidden by Piet) and are usually accompanied by funny poems. And in southern Netherlands and in Germany (Luxembourg, Belgium as well), December the 6th becomes the present-giving day.
In fact, the merry Santa Claus that I grew up with is a version of Sinterklaas or Saint Nicolas (as the Germans say). But I only wrote letters for Santa Claus, never a cute poem.
3. The most wonderful time of the year
I love walking the cobblestone streets of Amsterdam and peering into an old bar that still maintains remnants of its 400 year old history. Wood accents accentuate the natural look and in between the nooks, garland twists around the edges. The lighting is dimmed to its lowest potential and small candles are situated at each table. Sometimes ornaments hang from the ceilings or small Christmas trees decorate the corners. No matter what city you live in, there’s nothing like the holiday atmosphere. Between the smells of roasted chestnuts or pepernoten and the hanging garland and lit trees, and the smiles peaking from bundled children with rosy cheeks, cities come alive. They exude a magic that can only be found one time a year.
4. Christmas markets
I originally wrote this before the tragedy in Berlin. It broke my heart to hear about the attack at Breitscheidplatz Christmas market, but my views on Christmas markets haven’t changed, my affection only growing stronger. Without further ado…
If there’s ever an excuse to gain some holiday weight – here it is. Käsespätzle, Rösti, Hungarian pizza, and Bratwurst are all in abundance. And what about the Glühwein and Feuerzangenbowle? Forget about the cold weather because you’re insides turn into liquid warmth almost immediately after drinking some spiced alcohol.
This year, my favorite Christmas market was a medieval-themed one in Esslingen. While it was very crowded, it consisted of small wooden huts that sold potions or rather, alcohol in fancy bottles and leather pouches that channel your inner hipster or monk. The merchants are all dressed in medieval garb and while they may not speak in Middle High German, they have the patience of a Saint.
Esslingen itself was a market town in the 800s and was considered a major centre for trade in medieval times, so it makes sense that one of the largest Christmas markets would be here.
In addition to eating and drinking, you can channel your inner medieval (non-bubonic) child by having an awesome time shooting a bow and arrow (hopefully not while too drunk) or playing a game to determine which little hole the mouse will run to, or ride an old-fashoined ferris wheel where someone has to actually turn it! And if you win any of these games, you get colored stones as a prize. Unfortunately these cannot be used as a form of currency.
All of this is to say that what I find to be the most inspiring part about the holidays is the childlike wonder that comes with new cultures, the atmosphere, the warmth, and the traditions. As an expat, I can have moments where I want to cling to my traditions as some sort of safety net, but at the end of the day, this lifestyle is about learning what other cultures do [to celebrate] and taking part in it myself.
And what I love about every culture is the fact that holidays inspire people to treat each other with kindness, compassion, and love. And that’s what we need most as we march into the new year.
Fijne Kerstdagen, frohe Weihnachten, Merry Christmas.