Some travellers love Christmas
You can see all the ‘A Travellers Christmas’ posts here.
Holidays can be quite difficult as an expat. For family based holidays like Thanksgiving and especially Christmas the distance can be a big factor. Family and friends back home are far away. Local friends often go off to their own families. This can lead to a bit more isolation than normal. Sometimes holidays aren’t even celebrated in your host country. Even if they are, the customs and such surrounding them can be very different. None of this is necessarily bad, but at times when you crave some sort of comforting normalcy extra differences are not what you are looking for. Despite which holidays in a new country can be a good way to connect with the culture.
Family, Friends and Isolation
Christmas is one of those holidays that is often rooted in family. Families come together and kids have off school. As an expat in Germany I am learning that my friends are part of my new family. Although my local German friends often have their own families and traditions to go back to in other cities, I have definitely spent some good Christmas days with other expats.
Being an expat often gives you something in common with other expats. We all understand that being an expat away from family is a struggle sometimes. This understanding means you can help each other through these times. Inviting others for holidays and doing stuff together.
My family is small and spread out. I love them, but I am not really a big family sort of person. Too many people all at once overwhelms me. So at some level it is nice here to have the time off to be quiet and reflect on the year and regain energy in the middle of the dark German winter. It can be a good experience if you go into it with that idea.
A Time to Travel…
If you really don’t want to be alone in your expat town and don’t have a family to spend time with, head out. A few years ago I had just bought an apartment in Germany and the sense of settling down was a bit overwhelming. So I booked a trip to London and Scotland for Christmas and New Years. I had planned to spend Christmas in a hostel, but was invited to spend it with a childhood friend of mine who happened to have resettled in London. It was a neat experience to spend time with others.
Germans definitely celebrate Christmas. They are serious about it too. The season begins in late November with the Christmas markets which last through December. December 6 is St Nicolas Day when children get a small gift from the familiar red coated figure. Christmas gifts are usually opened on the 24th and yet there are days of Christmas. Both the 25th and 26 (and half the 24th) are official holidays, at least here in Baden. Oh and even then it isn’t over, January 6 is Three Kings day and also off. It is a nice bracketing of the season to ease back into the new year with a holiday so soon after new years.
All of this sounds really similar to the US. And while that is true, there are enough differences to highlight that I am somewhere else. I really like the Christmas Markets as a place to go hang out and stroll through the bright lights on a cold snowy evening with friends. St. Nicolas day is neat, especially the chocolate on my desk at work, but I don’t have the childhood nostalgia to help me get into it any more than that. Though to look at the kids at the office rendition of Nickolaus’s coming, they most certainly will.
Yes, the stores are still a madness. Sales abound and shoppers are insane. The multi-story drug store in town has little Santa’s climbing up the outside. So from many outward appearances, it is just as materialistic and buy-heavy as the US. Though as an expat I feel it a lot less.
I don’t watch broadcast TV or listen to the radio. Given the foreign language, it just isn’t as relaxing as in the US. Since starting a blog and getting into the travel blogging community online, I have gotten even less into stuff. The idea of spending extra money on something other than travel is hard. Getting married hasn’t changed this as Ali feels the same way, perhaps even stronger than I do in some respects.
So what is it really like?
In so many ways, it is not much different than living away from family in the US. Trade packed parking lots for packed public transport and add more public drinking. The decorations are up everywhere, though thankfully in late November instead of late(or even mid) October. I have even heard the standard English Christmas songs being played in stores. The grocery stores are filled with cookies and chocolates.
And yet when you look close, the details are not what the mind might expect. The cookies are different shapes and flavors than home. Occasionally a German carol comes on to remind you where you are. Even going back to the US in June was overwhelming. I don’t know how well I could manage at Christmas time with the insanity. The German sense of order helps keep the chaos in check in its own way. Expat life for me is being ever between two cultures and two places. I just feel this more at holiday time. The wonderment of being in a different place as well as the pull to the familiar at home.
Andrew is a 5 year American expat in Germany. He works on juggling way too many projects including several blogs (Grounded Traveler and Ctrl-Alt-Travel), a day job as a web developer, one finished book on learning web technology and is starting a novel as well. This all keeps him busy between trips to the far ends of the earth with his wife, Ali.