Holidays in America tend to follow a similar pattern, no matter where one might be. Particular foods are associated with particular celebrations — turkey is synonymous with Thanksgiving, for most in the United States — and certain decorations (wreathes and trees) are associated with certain days (Christmas).
But those who travel or have lived abroad know that holidays familiar to Americans are not celebrated in other countries or are celebrated with traditions very unlike those to which they are accustomed. There can be a challenge to injecting familiar holiday spirit into unfamiliar surroundings. Some attempts are more successful than others, and some lead to new traditions carried back across the ocean.
“I’ll never forget my first Christmas away from the States,” said C.H. Booth librarian Kim Weber. “I was 17 and an exchange student in Belgium. My host family was not religious and I didn’t know what to do on Christmas Eve,” she remembered.
On a ski vacation with her host family in northern Italy, she wandered down to the village that evening. There she found a church performing a living crèche. Shepherds carried lambs on their shoulders; a donkey nodded its head above a sleeping baby Jesus with dark curls.
There were no presents, no big dinner, no family members with her, yet it remains a cherished memory.
The Federman family has spent several Jewish holidays abroad, and among the more memorable was one in Mexico, at Passover. Rummaging around to find the proper ingredients to make up a Seder plate proved challenging, but they somehow managed, said Dan Federman.
“Similarly, we were in Amsterdam during Yom Kippur and sought out a synagogue. We found the famous Portuguese Synagogue,” said Mr Federman, and there the family also found “a rich cultural and religious experience.”
The first big cultural difference from Yom Kippur celebrations at home was being interviewed “by gun-toting security,” because they were foreigners. Once welcomed by the congregation, they were exposed to other cultural differences.
“Men and women are segregated and many of the men were bedizened in black tie and top hats,” recalled Mr Federman. Even so, the Federmans found that “although we were from different countries and prayed in different styles, we were welcomed as family by the Dutch, just because we share our Jewish heritage.”
Linda and Peter Lubinsky and their two children lived in Japan for four years, England for two years, and in Paris for four years, at various times between 1990 and 2002.
Trying to find a turkey for the Thanksgiving Day feast was truly a challenge in Japan, said Ms Lubinsky. Her mother was living with them the first year they were in Japan, and was determined to have a traditional Thanksgiving. They managed to get a turkey, but not yet being familiar with the kitchen appliances, Ms Lubinsky’s mother woke up suddenly the night before Thanksgiving and ran downstairs to see if the turkey would fit in the oven. Once cooked, they sliced into it with a bit of trepidation.
“We had been told that turkeys in Japan were fed fish, so it would taste really different,” Ms Lubinsky said. All were relieved to dig into the meal and find that the turkey tasted like — turkey.
They learned over the years that when visiting the States, to pack cans of cranberry sauce and bring them back to Japan. “We could not find it anywhere, and you have to have it for Thanksgiving,” she said.
They also had to retrain their Thanksgiving Day expectations while living in Japan. “When I think of that day, I think: Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, followed by eating a feast, and then watching football,” Ms Lubinsky said. But in Japan, Thanksgiving Day fell smack dab in the middle of the Bosho Tournament.
“So instead of watching football, we watched Sumo wrestling,” she said. The best part of that, she added, “Is that after watching Sumo wrestling, you feel you can go back for that extra piece of pie!”
A tree at Christmas was an expensive proposition. “You spent $100 back then for a four-foot tree in a planter. We made a lot of our own ornaments, too, including an angel tree topper that we still have,” she said.
Christmas food in England “blew my socks off,” said Ms Lubinsky. Huge displays of very traditional English produce, like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and potatoes filled the stores, along with a wide variety of wild game.
“It hit me that our family does the big traditional meal on Thanksgiving, but European countries tend to have the fancier meal for Christmas,” she said.
Food in France at Christmastime was also astounding, Ms Lubinsky said, and tree prices were as astonishing as those in Japan.
She returned from France with many dear memories, she said. One Christmas season, in front of one of the many classic Parisian shops, she and her children came upon Pére Noel. “I encouraged my kids to talk to him in French. He was handing out Madeleines [petite French cookies] to the kids. It was just such a perfectly French thing,” she said.
Pére Noel was just one of the names by which her family came to know Santa Claus. In Japan, when he appeared, he was “Santasan.” In England, it was Father Christmas who brought the gifts. “You have to get your terminology right,” Ms Lubinsky laughed.
She recalled being in Paris for the Millennium. “I remember standing beneath the Eiffel Tower. It was phenomenal, and from a cultural standpoint, just amazing,” she said. Later that night, walking home from the spectacular light show, they walked beneath an elevated train track.
“There was this massive block of people filling the streets, and everyone on the train was waving, and everyone was waving back. It just mattered that we had shared the moment, not where we all were from,” she said.
Italian-born Newtown High School Italian and French teacher Laura Battisti has a mirror image experience to celebrating abroad.
“Since I lived in Switzerland as a child for six years, I am not afraid to be exposed to new traditions,” said Ms Battisti. “I came to the States in 1998. My daughters were 10 and 6 at the time. I encouraged my two daughters to do the same here,” she said.
The celebration of Halloween is foreign to Italians, she said, and right on the heels of that October holiday, came another new American holiday — Thanksgiving.
“We knew nothing about it in Italy, except that there was a turkey involved. So, I went to the local library in Ridgefield, where I live, and borrowed children’s books about the holiday. I read them and then shared them with my daughters,” she said. The Battistis browsed pictures, dates, traditions, and even recipes to familiarize themselves with the new holiday.
“In other words, we did our homework before attending our first Thanksgiving dinner, where we were impressed by the size of the turkey. In Italy,” she said, “we don’t even have ovens big enough to fit turkeys of that size.”
Her daughters learned in school about another holiday with which they were unfamiliar, said Ms Battisti, that of Hanukkah. “They played the game, dreidel. Again, I wanted them to fully understand the meaning, and we researched and learned together about it.
“It is wonderful,” she continued, “to have the possibility to experience new cultures and traditions, and to learn more about other people,” even while retaining their own traditions. “I have been lucky enough to meet wonderful American friends who have shared with me their traditions.”