Christmas away from home

Janine Radice von Wogau 

Christmas is connected for most people with home. With childhood memories and special foods, smells, surroundings and rituals that are familiar. Those of us who left our countries and married spouses with different backgrounds have been confronted with how to combine traditions, create new ones and end up feeling good about Christmas.  This is more of a difficulty for spouses of different religious faiths. Coming up with an own family tradition  in ones new home requires flexibility, good communication and an interest to appreciate and use each spouses resources to make Christmas something everyone can identify with and enjoy. Major holidays  like other life cycle rituals like engagements, weddings, births, leaving home, divorce, graduations, retirement, death are  especially challenges  for binational couples.

Parents are the architects of generating a family celebration that children can enjoy and give them a sense of  tradition, belonging and  identity. Young children are the most spontaneously fun to have around and if you can join them in their playfulness and fantasy- you will do fine. In my many years of being an expat, I have celebrated Christmas in a wide variety of ways.  But adults are more complicated and confronted by their expectations that things should be “perfect” which creates a lot of stress and conflict.

I find it amazing the way holiday rituals can be varied and how they naturally transform over the human life cycle. After leaving home to study and living too far away from my small family to spend Christmas with them I naturally spent it with friends. When I  traveled to South America I was confronted for the first  with the prospect of spending Christmas alone. I was on my way from Bolivia to Santiago Chile and somewhere on the road knew that  Christmas still was important for me and I didn’t want to be sitting alone in a hotel room. I needed to be somewhere in a family. I made it to Santiago on the 23rd of December  a spent my first Christmas in someone else’s family. I felt saved from possible despair. They family was unique in that my Chilean friend had  with six sisters. There was a lot of chattering.  I was surprised that the family ate together, but then around 11pm   my friends and I left to party . That was different for me.

In Brazil we usually spent Christmas together with others, both Brazilians and non-Brazilians who did not have families living in Fortaleza, Ceara. We got together  to cook and eat  and dance. After moving to Brazil we have spent  Christmas’  over the last 20 years in the tropics. Now Christmas means palm trees, swimming, beach and fresh fish cooked in a banana leaf. We decorate a palm tree and exchange a few simple presents. The two years we spend Christmas in Germany we had one meal which was my traditional family meal and then switched over to the meal my husband was accustomed to. There is something nice about northern hemisphere lighted “tannenbaum”, but I don’t feel that I am in the right place without a palm tree. Since we usually leave for Brazil around the 21st we started doing a Christmas with my husbands family the weekend before traveling and that seems to fill a need for being together with family.

The expectations surrounding the holiday season are not only stress producing for most people, but can imply dread, loneliness and depression. All over the world this holiday season is responsible for  long waiting lists at counseling services and  plunges many people into crises. It brings up so many memories and if you have recently lost  important people in your life  a  consequence of migration, divorce or death you may be confronted with some pretty lonely and sad feelings. Most people want to be in their ideal family setting and most people don’t have that ideal family.   When Christmas looks bleak –take care of yourself. Figure out something to do  somewhere- with people where you think you are likely to feel good. Traveling is always a way out  and most people have some one they can visit. Once in desperation I thought about spending the 24th of December on an airplane. If that does not appeal possibly  you know  some people who find themselves alone and you can  organize something to do together-like cooking a meal. I think loneliness is the most desolate aspect of Christmas when you are new somewhere. So  check out sometime in November  who will be around and might be free or be looking for company over Christmas.  Make some telephone calls to old friends and family which helps to feel connected. Think about opening up your home to some lost soul.

For those who have religious roots church or church communities might offer companionship and trying to get in touch with the spiritual meaning of Christmas might bring more comforting feelings. Midnight mass does have something magical.  The materialism associated with the holiday has become increasingly overwhelming-although it is not as bad here as in the states. I fear with globalization nobody has escaped-Moslem, Jew or Zoroastoean.  It is unfortunate that  the deeper spiritual  meaning  which symbolizes a joyful event of hope and love has largely been lost. Maybe beginning the day with a meditation or prayer and then sharing with the people around you warmth and love.

I would like to close by sharing one of my favorite Christmas rituals which as our daughter has gotten older we do not do any longer. The reading of  Clement C. Moore’s, A Visit From St Nicolas.


“The Night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse; the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that  St. Nicolas soon would be there. I always loved this poem and want to say “Happy Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

Published in FACETS:

An English speaking newsletter

Freiburg, Germany, 2014


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