An Expat Kind of Holiday

There is a lot of literature out there about the expat child. How to make the transition easier for him or her, how to ease the pressures, how to make sure they don’t lose their identity with all those international moves. There are psychologists employed by companies who consult expat families, and soon-to-be expat ones, who design workshops where kids get to role-play to know how to deal with new cultural situations, who generally make sure that the poor expat child does not suffer too much from the hardships visited upon him with yet another move.

But has anyone ever stopped to look at the other side of the coin? Because being an expat child has one HUGE upside: They get to celebrate every holiday tradition they’ve ever come in contact with on all their travels. I know this, because I’m one of the elves (also known as mothers) working tirelessly behind the scenes to make it all come together.

Take our kids. Having two full-blooded German parents, they get all the German Christmas traditions. Which are elaborate, let me tell you. We Germans never do anything half-assed.

advent calendar tradition
Normally outside, but this time inside due to rain. Note the boot for the cat!

On the 6th of December, they get their boots filled with candy and presents by St. Nicholas, the dude who later went on to become Santa Claus in the United States and by extension the world, yet still lingers in parts of the old world to surprise kids in early December.

On the 6th of December, our kids also get their own Advent calendar each. Individually wrapped little presents for each day until Christmas, to help pass the time and count down the days, because of course they have nothing to do and are bored out of their minds, while SOMEONE, presumably St. Nicholas, labors away on their behalf.

On Christmas Eve, our kids get to open their Christmas presents, just like their American counterparts get to do the morning after. So that’s more or less the same.

But since we live in the United States, we also have to do all the other stuff Americans do at Christmas time. Which seems to mainly involve decorating everything to death. Americans LOVE decorating. And my girls pestered me long enough about everyone else’s pretty Christmas lights that I caved and now spend a whole day perched on ladders, the wind whistling around me, nudging chains of white and green lights over uncooperative branches with a converted broom handle I manufactured just for that purpose. Every year half the lights from last year no longer work, no matter how lovingly you wound them up, and so this involves yet another shopping trip to the mall dodging all the other millions of people who are out shopping.

christmas baking
Christmas baking. I love it, I do, but it would be more fun without all the other Christmas stress around it.

We have to also do cookie exchanges. In which you never get back the same quality of cookies you’ve baked yourself, so that your husband gets mad that none of the good cookies are left and that he now has to eat a Rolo topped with a peanut posing for a Christmas cookie.

And we have to give the teachers Christmas presents, which might involve more cookie baking or some other elaborate and thoughtful gift like a personalized bookmark or notepad.

We also have to make sure to give presents i.e. cash-stuffed envelopes to the bus driver, newspaper delivery man or woman, the trash people, the mailman, and all the staff at school. All these are extras I would not have to do in Germany. Germans don’t seem to value their teachers and bus drivers in quite the same way. Perhaps this is ok because teachers and bus drivers certainly make a lot more money over there.

carved pumpkins for halloween
This year’s pumpkins. The kids are now old enough to carve their own.

Of course our kids also get to do Halloween. Which over the years has involved a lot of sewing and crafting and pumpkin carving on my part. When we moved to South Africa, I harbored hopes of escaping Halloween for a couple of years, but no, the custom seemed to have moved overseas ahead of us and I was stuck sewing costumes there too.

The only thing I was able to escape in South Africa was Thanksgiving. Since the kids didn’t have off from school for it, they plumb forgot about it. I did my best not to bring it up, and I was giddy with relief over having dodged all that cooking. Which of course I really didn’t because South Africans braai around the clock. There is always some meat to prepare for grilling in a South African kitchen. There were a ton of new holidays to be celebrated, none of which I understood, except that they involved yet another braai with friends over and beer and a stash of biltong so large it could have nourished a whole clan of Voortrekkers discovering another continent.

holiday baking and cooking
One of the 18 Thanksgiving side dishes, acorn squash.

Of course now we are back in the U.S. and the gigantic turkey plus 18 side dishes is back on the menu. The only holiday tradition we’ve so far seemed to evade is Elf on a Shelf, by virtue of our kids being too old for the children’s book when it came out.

I doubt our kids are the only ones with double and triple whammies for holiday traditions. I’m sure there are a lot of other expat kids out there gleefully rubbing their hands at all the bonus stuff they get. And I bet they are accompanied by a lot of very exhausted expat mothers just like me.

By the way, this is the short form of our Holiday traditions. You’ll be able to read all about St. Nicholas and the Advent calendars and Christmas at our house in my next post. Just pour yourself a coffee as it will be a long one.

Are you an expat? Share your traditions!

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