I am a South African, living in Germany and married to a Czech. When you’re living away from your home country, for the most part you settle into a new daily routine, acquire new habits and generally get on with things. However there’s always going to be those times where you are reminded that you’re a bit of a square peg in a round hole. For me, Christmas is one of those times , because no matter how great the Christmas celebration is here, I always have that feeling that it’s just not 100% Christmas. Here are the things I miss most about my South African Christmas:
This goes without saying: from childhood, Christmas is a family time, so of course Christmas day without your immediate family will never be as good, and is usually bittersweet.
2. Christmas day
In central Europe, Christmas is celebrated on the 24th December. Everyone sits around the Christmas tree and opens their presents on the evening of the 24th. Although we also celebrated the Christmas Eve (the 24th) in South Africa, for me, Christmas was always the 25th December. This means that now I wake up on Christmas morning and there is nothing: all the presents have already been opened and there are no Christmas wishes in the morning or special Christmas dinner. That usually makes me feel sad. In Germany, they do have special Christmas meals for all three days of Christmas (24th, 25th, 26th), but the 25th is not the main event. Luckily at least if you go to church on the 25th they are celebrating!
3. Christmas in summer
I know, I know – everyone dreams of a white Christmas, and I used to too. Even in the summery weather of South African Christmas, we decorate with snowflakes, and Santa still has his thick red and white coat. However I’ve been in central Europe for 6 years and so far every Christmas has been grey, not white. So now I miss those warm December nights, where you could sing carols by candlelight outside and the schools could do their nativity plays in the garden, with the warm air, starry skies and singing crickets reminding you how it could have been in Bethlehem long ago. What’s more, how awesome is it that in Cape Town you can go for a swim or a walk on the beach once the Christmas dinner has been prepared! Christmas also falls at the end of the school, university and working year and is during our main summer holiday. Most people take their longest holiday of the year here, making it a very relaxed time, with everybody in a good mood.
4. Christmas dinner
The Christmas dinner varies from family to family in Germany. In Czech Republic, they eat fried crumbed carp and potato salad. I miss our typical Christmas dinner plate from home: the herby bread stuffing, the roast turkey, the mashed or roast potatoes with gravy, roast vegetables, and for pudding the trifle and Christmas pudding. I especially miss eating sherry-sodden trifle for breakfast the day after!
5. Mince pies and Christmas cake
Each country has their own traditional Christmas foods. I absolutely love the Lebkuchen, Stollen, Dominos, Zimtsterne, Gluhwein and other German Christmas treats, and the perníčky (Czech gingerbread) and other cukrový in the Czech Republic, but I also miss my traditional Christmas treats like mince pies and Christmas fruit cake. Every year we used to go to my grandmother’s house to make dozens and dozens of mince pies for the whole family, which were eaten throughout December, and making the Christmas cake was also a big deal as you had to make it in late November or early December and water it with brandy throughout the month.
6. Christmas carols
There are some Christmas carols that seem to be global, like “Adeste Fidelis” (Oh come all ye faithful) and “Jingle Bells”, but there are also a lot of local Christmas songs. That means in your new country someone can be putting on their favourite Christmas music and humming along, and for you there is no association between that music and Christmas at all. Hang in there, because in a few years you will start to associate the new music with Christmas too. After a few Christmases here, the Popelka song (Tři oříšky) from the Czech Christmas movie “Tři oříšky pro Popelku” (Three Wishes for Cinderella) already gives me that Christmas feeling.
7. The pine scent
The Christmas trees here are beautiful fir trees, which grow in the cold climes of the north. However in South Africa we use pine trees as Christmas trees, so the whole room smells like fragrant pine, and that is the scent of Christmas for me, pine mixed with tinsel and candles!
8. Father Christmas
In Czech Republic, Father Christmas (Santa Claus) does not visit secretly in the night to drop off presents, with the kids waking up in the morning to find presents under the tree. Instead, the baby Jesus (Kristkind in German) passes by on the 24th to drop off presents. This means that my nephew in Czech doesn’t experience the joy of waking up and finding presents under the tree, although of course he doesn’t know what he’s missing. I remember as a kid how exciting it was to wake up in the semi-darkness and feel the empty stocking you had hung up the night before bulging with little presents like soap, sweets and stickers. I do miss the feeling of the joy of Christmas morning, which is somewhat missing when it starts in the afternoon of the 24th.
Of course, on the other side of the coin, there are plenty of great things about Christmas here that I would also miss if I left: the Christmas markets, the lebkuchen and other sweet things, the chance that there COULD at least be snow, the variety of advent calendars available, and so on.
So, fellow expats – what do you miss most about Christmas in your home country, and what do you love about Christmas in your new place of residence? Are there differences between Christmas at home and in the place you are living now?