The festive season for an expat can be full of emotions; regret and excitement. To begin with you are excited by the different traditions you start to encounter and the unusual customs you witness.
I’m still uncomfortable when I see a Zwarte Piet and find it difficult to understand how that austere bishop fills everyone with such happiness! I miss our "chubby and plump, right jolly old elf" version of Santa Claus, but I love seeing the children singing as they await the arrival of Sinterklaas, and like the idea of putting your shoes out every night for three weeks to find them filled with a few chocolate coins or cookies.
Christmas traditions are so personal and really do make the event for each of us. When we lived in the US we loved the huge, month-long "sparkly" build-up to Christmas; the Holiday Walks, Christmas Cookie parties, Yankee Swap parties, concerts and carols but were always disappointed that once Christmas Day was over that was it…back to work!
We miss that build-up a little in the Netherlands but have discovered new seasonal traditions such as the wonderful Christmas markets here and over the border in Germany. There is such a feeling of Christmases past when wandering through an old German town, with a warm mug of gluhwein in your hands, choosing a traditional wooden tree ornament from a stall.
Your own personal traditions, when far from family, become very important at this time of year. Whilst in the US we started a custom of attending a children’s Christmas pageant in Trinity Copley Square, Boston on Christmas Eve. To us it symbolized the season and there was a childlike wonder to be found when standing in a church, surrounded by children telling the Nativity story. Finding an English speaking church in the Netherlands has proved a little more difficult, but we’ve spent Christmas Eve in Amsterdam just so we can attend the midnight mass at the Christ Church, on Groenburgwal. There is something very reassuring about being surrounded by others also far from home, all searching for that familiar ritual. This year we may visit Trinity church in Eindhoven, another English speaking church, for that same reason.
The other detail, that becomes apparent when away from "home" during the festive season, is the need for that special food that you just can’t celebrate without! Facebook becomes full of requests for information from expats…where to buy stuffing for the turkey, canned pumpkin or mincemeat for the traditional British mincepies. Trips to import stores in Antwerp or Den Haag are arranged, as you become fellow explorers, all searching in a foreign land for that taste from home. If anyone is visiting their homeland weeks before, they carry shopping requests for friends. The idea of spending Christmas, for a Brit, is absurd without mincepies or Christmas pudding, as is Thanksgiving for Americans without pumpkin pie. Of course the seasonal food in the Netherlands is a new experience and there is nothing better than a freshly made oliebol, a type of doughnut dusted with powdered sugar to be eaten at New Years’ Eve or a handful of pepernoten at Sinterklaas, the tiny delicious cinnamon cookies.
So before I head out to track down English Christmas crackers and Christmas Pudding I wish you all a happy Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Three Kings Day, Saint Lucia Day, Christmas or which ever seasonal festival you plan to celebrate.