If you’ve spent a Christmas or New Year in a different country, especially a non-European, not dominantly Christian country, you may have found it disconcerting. There may be little more deeply embedded in our psyches as traditional as “The Holidays”. That is for better or for worse. The sounds of a carol, the images of snow and Santas, the smells of pine and cranberry, all bombard us with emotions. In the 21st century, these images are almost inescapable. Experiencing these cues in a small town in Asia or Africa intensify the sense of displacement and alienation. This is a time full of emotional land mines.
I’ve spent almost all of the last 14 Christmases outside of the US, mostly in Asia or the Middle East, in Muslim and Buddhist countries. While it can feel lonesome at times – I swear there is nothing like a snow rendition of Jingle Bells to bring on waves of sad nostalgia – I’ve found the local interpretations of our most important holidays to be quite amusing.
Here is some advice for the holidays abroad:
Adjust your expectations. It won’t be the same as at home. Let go of your attachment to the usual trappings, such as mistletoe and turkey, or ham. You won’t get a live evergreen tree. As an expat one of the best ways to settle in well is to accept that things are different, so learn to love the local. Every place I’ve been for Christmas has adapted some aspects of our holidays.
Philippino choir sings carols in a hotel in Bahrain Video Joanne Bretzer
Improvise. Decorate that palm tree! Light up the cactus! Convert some of your recipes. Sage dressing in a stuffed lamb roast? Excellent! Pomegranate seeds sprinkled on a mango or orange salad? Great! With imagination and squinced eyes, your table may actually look downright Norman Rockwell perfect. Honestly, the food will probably taste better.
Go against the grain, or even the law. If Christmas for you must include some of the “sacred” elements, then bring your own, or be vigilant in search of the real stuff, which may be quite well hidden.
I spent a couple of Christmases in Saudi Arabia. My neighbor was insistent on a tree. Imagine her thrill when we were in a mall, in a small store on the top floor, and a seller loudly whispered to her, “over here,” and he pointed to under the counter where he had contraband plastic trees, and cards! and decorations! The excitement of the holidays that year was the frisson of trangressiveness involved in lighting the tree. Our other neighbor was forced to take her front window tree down. We lived on an expat compound. Don’t try this in a mixed local neighborhood. The religious police take a dim view of Christmas lights.
Accept that this may be a sensitive time, and see where your emotions take you. Yes, be aware and tune into that sadness and nostalgia. Spend a few tears and bid your old life adieu. You may find that this frees you to embrace the joys of your new country. The celebration of Tet, lunar new year, in Vietnam brings families all over the country back together for a week of feasting and spiritual celebration. Eids, the tradition celebrations of Muslim countries do likewise. Tuning into these celebrations will bring you closer to the local culture.
Holidays away from home remind us of those dear to us, and that can be celebrated anywhere in the 21st century, with social media, Skype and the telephone. If all else fails, throw yourself into that other Christmas classic – holiday travel; crammed airports, storm-delayed flights, busses and traffic.
Storm: Traffic edges its way through York in a pre-Christmas snowstorm as Britain suffered the coldest December since records began.