Being an expat might take you to several parts of the world. Even if you would prefer to celebrate Christmas together with family in your home country, taking part in other cultures’ celebrations gives you a lot too.
The first time we lived abroad, observing all the outside Christmas decorations and lights in the colors of the rainbow surprised me. Real Canadian Christmas! I have to admit I felt like entering into a Disney movie, my eyes as big as cover plates. I was so happy in the December darkness that I put jolly American Christmas songs on my CD player and drove along the residential areas while my husband was video filming!
Having moved from Norway, where we still had quite modest decorations at the turn of the century, I felt a great culture shock! In spring however, I found out that many just pulled out the electrical cords, leaving the stable with Jesus and Maria standing quite misplaced among the flowerbeds.
US & Brazilian mix
It grew even more impressive! The next Christmas we celebrated abroad was in Rio de Janeiro. They built a large Christmas tree of steel floating in the middle of the Lagoon in Ipanema. When they lit the tree, you could see it and hear the music miles away. It was amazing, accompanied by fantastic fireworks! On New Year’s Eve, four million people met at Copacabana just before midnight. Everybody dressed in white, counting down together with a clock on big screens, while white doves were let out to greet the new year. Flower wreaths were thrown into the ocean as gifts to the gods of the sea. Brazil is a Catholic country, but they also have a great influence from all the slaves that were brought there centuries ago – so it’s a fantastic cultural melting pot.
In the US, the late-fall-to-Christmas season starts with Halloween. Lights and scary people lead up to Thanksgiving, the most important celebration of the year, where families get together, grateful for the year that passed. A good tip: Avoid travelling to the US during the last week of November! Their Christmas preparations start as soon as the turkey is digested.
In Texas they start selling Christmas decorations in August. However, it really parachutes after Thanksgiving. Huge inflatable and lighted Santas in helicopters, enormous sugar canes and whole reindeer teams pop up. They look great in the dark, but when they turn off the generators in daylight, they look like big, colorful rubber piles on the lawns – not quite as charming. In our Houston neighborhood they had an annual winter party where they made real snow with big snow cannons, so the kids could slide and play. Fun even for Norwegian children!
The Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Houston hosts a large Christmas bazaar in November each year, where all the expat women bake, make handcraft items and even meet up to help sell all the goods. It is a great income for the church, which is an important institution for Norwegians living in or traveling to Texas.
Boat parade and drive-through Santa
At our second home, in Cape Coral, Florida, they arrange an annual boat parade just before Christmas. It’s amazing to see how the creativity turn boats into floating Christmas decorations. However, what impressed me most was the guy with a huge X-mas tree mounted to his small kayak, paddling along with the boats. (You can see him the video). This year will be the 37th consecutive Christmas boat parade.
But when all is said and done, it comes down to having a good time with family and friends, being grateful for what you have and reflect upon the year that’s coming to an end. We have often celebrated with my husband’s second cousins in Kentucky, and it feels great taking part in their values and traditions too. The part I find the most funny is actually that they’re wearing Santa hats all evening. It really makes you cheerful and happy. We have even added a few activities while being there. In order to make the hours pass before Christmas Eve dinner and presents for impatient children, we’ve introduced ice skating and bowling.
The strangest thing I ever experienced was the drive-through Santa! A middle aged couple uses their own money to put up an enormous amount of decorations, in addition to giving away small presents and reindeer dust to attract Santa to all children being driven through by their parents.
It’s all about sharing
The strongest experience I’ve had living abroad was actually in St. John’s, Newfoundland. My first November there I met men from the military at the supermarket, handing out lists over food items needed for families living in poverty. I took a list and made my way through the aisles, picking the wanted items. When I reached the baby food section, I suddenly started to cry, thinking about how lucky my own one-year old was. So remember; Christmas is the season of giving and sharing, so please take a minute to stop and think if you can give a helping hand to those in need.
Merry Christmas and a blessed 2014 to all my readers!
Text and photos by Heidi Nesttun-Sunde, December 2013