Living and working outside the United States has been a fabulous experience for my husband and me for most of the last few years, but I must confess that when the holidays come along we have always managed to get ourselves “home” to celebrate with friends and family in California. We rent a house near our children each year and spend many weeks enjoying their company and our family traditions before departing for new adventures in other parts of the world. This year, as we were making preparations for the big day I began to consider how Americans who live and work abroad full-time observe their holidays in countries which do not observe Christmas or those who practice holiday traditions which are different from ours.
When I asked friends who live abroad to share some of their experiences I was rewarded with some excellent observations and colorful tales. So here’s my Christmas present to you – courtesy of expats who are singing carols and basting turkeys around the world.
My friend Dr. Anita Welch, who is an Associate Professor at Emirate College for Advanced Education in Abu Dhabi, sent a wonderful photo of Santa and the lavish three story Christmas tree she saw in a mall, with live toy soldiers amusing the children. Her colleague, Mary Lynn Woolsey, PH.D., who is staying in Abu Dhabi this Christmas, was kind enough to share her experience of singing Christmas carols in the desert with hundreds of other expats.
She wrote, “In 2006 a group of expats living in Abu Dhabi, a Muslim country, missed the tradition of singing Christmas carols. They wanted to give their children an unforgettable experience, so they trekked to the desert, set up batteries for their musical instruments and Christmas lights, fired up their grills, and celebrated Christmas in the desert.
“This year we followed the tradition, arranged our spot with food and drink, and settled in to enjoy our picnic. The older kids raced down the biggest dunes on their sleds while younger ones played with shovels and buckets and made sand angels on the cool desert floor. When the sun began to set the entire group of at least 500 people turned to the west and took pictures of the sun slipping into the horizon. People lit candles, the stage sparkled with Christmas lights, and voices rang with Jingle Bells, Silent Night, and all the rest. It was the most amazing Christmas party I’ve ever attended.
ENGLAND – Jonathan Clark, a novelist working in Britain, wrote to me that in his family, “On Christmas Eve there is always some talk of attending Midnight Mass, but it never happens. Instead, there is a blur of suspiciously potent mulled wine, last-minute wrapping, stockings for the children and strategizing for Christmas dinner.
During the “most important meal of the year,” to quote his father, on Christmas day, somewhere midway through the main course, Queen Elizabeth’s speech begins to be broadcast. Someone, usually an older relative, always wants to watch it. There is often a prolonged debate about whether to just “have it on it the background” or watch the repeat later. After dinner presents are opened, a film will be agreed upon and leftovers from lunch appear, along with more wine.
It all sounds like great fun, and almost as chaotic as what goes on in my family!
Another friend of Anita’s is Dr. Daniel Kirk, an Associate Professor at Emirates College for Advanced Education. He is a dual US/UK citizen and has been a “professional expat” for the last 16 years. He shared some delightful stories about Bermuda, Qatar and Bahrain with me.
He said that Bermuda is cold and wet in December, but expats still gather on the beach with friends on Christmas morning. Horseshoe Bay, a wonderfully long, pristine beach flanked with palm trees and rocky outcroppings sets the scene for enjoying early glasses of Bucks Fizz, the bracing breeze from the Atlantic, and the most perfect sand underfoot. It is the best way to clear away the excesses of Christmas Even and get set for the festivities ahead.
Dan said,“I was in Qatar in the late 1990’s, when it was far from the sprawling metropolis it is today. Few in the small western expat community stayed for Christmas, but those who did enjoyed the great weather and relaxed feel of the city. We would head to a friends’s villa (usually the largest one) and have a Christmas potluck or barbecue. For those from colder parts of the world it was a luxury to eat outside. Christmas Eve was often spent at one of the only two international hotels in the city at the time, dancing into the small hours.
Christmas Day was, therefore, a bit low key, with everyone hanging out in the lovely weather and over-eating the leftovers.
“Bahrain was a restless place with nightly riots and unrest related to the political problems on the island. This meant that the western expat community kept a low profile. Christmas was a time of great weather and socializing, and we tended to congregate in our villa and celebrate with the (mainly) American families in our compound. There were lots of pool parties, barbecues, outside soirees, and a traditional Christmas day feast “
My good friend Brooke Bremner, who lived in Dublin for many years, tells me that there are hide-bound rules that the Irish observe scrupulously, mostly about food! For instance, “One must always serve turkey and ham in Ireland on Christmas Day, not turkey OR ham, but both. Also, there must be a Christmas cake, covered in marzipan and then royal icing. The traditional Christmas pudding is served with brandy butter, what we might call hard sauce. And everyone makes little two inch minced meat tarts to bring to parties as a gift. It’s a glorious time for foodies!”
Kasia Dietz, a handbag designer/manufacturer and writer from New York, whose unusual bags are sold worldwide, lives in Paris with her Italian husband. She tells me, “The side walk cafes provide heat lamps and blankets, beneath which you can indulge in a glass of seasonal mulled wine. The street vendors sell roasted chestnuts on the corner, and the annual holiday markets reveal an array of artisanal gift ideas. The Champs de Elysées glows bright with thousands of fairy lights, and the window displays at Printemps, Galeries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché look like theatre sets.
“Beginning in late December, pastry shops in Paris fill their windows with galettes des rois, or King Cake, to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6th. A good luck charm called a la fève is baked inside the puff pastry and whoever received the fève is crowned a king or queen for the day.
Our great friend Joseph McClain, a marvelously talented opera director, tells me that in San Miguel de Allende, where he has lived for many years, his favorite Christmas tradition is walking the posadas, which are the reenactments of Mary and Joseph searching for an inn. “Walking through the darkened colonial streets following Mary on a burro with Joseph leading the way, singing the old Spanish carols, seeing people opening their doors to strangers to offer them hot drinks, is a marvelous experience.
“Another favorite is the Mercado Navideño at the Mercado of San Juan de Dios. The market is outside in the small passageways between larger market buildings. Lights glitter, the hanging piñatas rustle, and there are tables full of the most amazing assortment of nacimiento figures depicting the Christmas story. People from the country bring in piles of moss used to decorate the nacimiento displays. And there’s always a little speaker somewhere playing Christmas songs that mingle with the noise of the crowds. It’s all very sweet, very Mexican, and very dear to me.
I’m not sure if I’ll have much luck, but this year I think I’ll suggest that my family adopts some new traditions. We could start with ham AND turkey, and I might even see if we can seethe queen’s speech right here in California to play in the background while we eat our Christmas pudding! We wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year wherever you are!
Kasia Dietz’s striking, sophisticated bags may be found at Kasia Dietz.com They are available world-wide.