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A Christmas story: expat version

A Christmas story: expat version

  • Have you ever moved to a new country to live, and spent Christmas away from home? Did you try to recreate Christmas exactly as you would have done back home? Or did you fully convert and embrace the traditions of where you were? Or did you blend them together, and therefore added a few extra traditions into the process?

Have you ever moved to a new country to live, and spent Christmas away from home? Did you try to recreate Christmas exactly as you would have done back home? Or did you fully convert and embrace the traditions of where you were? Or did you blend them together, and therefore added a few extra traditions into the process?

Sinterklaas and clogs

As the son of an oilman who worked for Shell, we started followed the oil, from the Netherlands to Brunei and then to the slightly chillier climes of bonny Scotland. My best friends growing up were the brothers Maarten and Derek Jan, who were Dutch and when we moved to Aberdeen from Brunei, they were suddenly there too, in the same estate, the same street and just a few doors down.

So, as November drew to a close, and Maarten and Derek Jan began to chatter excitedly about ‘Sinterklaas’ coming on St. Nicholas Eve, December 5th, and discussing how they needed to remember to put their clogs out in front of the fireplace for their presents, I naturally went straight home to tell mum all about it, even if I didn’t know what clogs were!


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B1233555 (@b1233555) által megosztott bejegyzés

‘Sinterklaas’ is coming to town

And before I knew it, my sister and I also had a pair of roughly hewn wooden clogs each, ready to leave by the fireplace for Sinterklaas and his helper. I remember discovering a packet of zoute dropje, salty Dutch liquorice, that I still love to this day, and a toothpaste-like tube of balloon-making stretchy gum, with a highly intoxicating smell, where you would squeeze a small piece of the brightly coloured goop out, roll it into a ball, stick it on the end of a straw, and blow it up gently to form a balloon.

That was a great start to the Christmas season, and we still had our own Christmas eve to look forward to on December 24th, for our Father Christmas. As this is also a tradition in Hungary, with children polishing their boots to put on the windowsill ready for Mikulás, I wonder if I can get away with starting this tradition in my house, even if these days it is just me and my wife? It’s worth a try.

Wrapping paper that was too loud

Did you know that wrapping paper can sometimes be too loud? I remember a Christmas Eve in Nigeria, still as a young boy, sleeping on the top of a rickety bunk bed with my younger sister underneath, and being too excited to get to sleep.


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𝙼𝚘𝚗𝚒𝚔𝚊 (@monika_ciolkowska) által megosztott bejegyzés

I remember the silhouetted shape of my mum (not Father Christmas?!) tip toeing into the bedroom and gently placing an enormously heavy, packed-to-the-brim, crinkling and scratching Christmas stocking at the foot of my bed. It was one of my dad’s rugby socks. Would it ever return to its original size, or would he spend the rest of his rugby practises with massively over-stretched and baggy socks refusing to stay up and collected around his ankles?

I lay there silently and dead-still, giving my very best impression of being sound asleep until I heard her retreating footsteps. I pictured in my mind her walking across the hall to her bedroom, pottering about, climbing into bed, drifting off to sleep…and then quietly crawled under the bedclothes, commando-style, to inspect the bulging rugby sock at the end of the bed. I pulled out a few of the presents but they seemed extra loud and crunchy this year, and then mum appeared. Not best pleased.

Just retrieve one present…

Even though I was only six or seven years old, I felt a sense of maturity in my ability to immediately discern that mum’s body language and low angry growl, meant she wasn’t quite as excited as I was to find out that Santa had been?! “Get back into bed. Get back to sleep. And do it right now!” I gave it a bit longer this time before exploring my presents again. A different approach.

Just retrieve one present, return to the pillow end, and try to open it from under the pillow and under the sheets to try and dampen all the sound. Present number one retrieved and ready to open. As I started to peel off the first piece of sellotape, there was that deafening crunching and crackling sound.

What on earth was going on? That was when I realised the present was wrapped in tin foil? What? As I was slowly, carefully, using my nail to get sellotape piece number two started, my mum was suddenly by the bed again! I gave up. Turns out mum could not find Christmas wrapping paper in the part of Nigeria we were in, in 1973, so came up with the cunning plan of covering everything in tin foil. It certainly foiled me…


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🌀Marty The Elf 🌀 (@marty_theelf) által megosztott bejegyzés

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The perfect Christmas Day?

When we moved to Nairobi, Kenya, as a family of four with two young children, we went on a two-year contract with flights back to the UK after two years. So, we had two Christmases to negotiate before getting back to a cold UK one and our families. Presents were vastly different that year.

There would be no ridiculously enormous pile of materialistic nonsense that advertising had forced us all to think the kids wanted or needed. No mountain of toys that would be torn open in seconds and forgotten about even quicker. Their Kenyan gifts that year were far more selectively chosen, partly because there was less choice, less shops, less shopping centres, and certainly no TV.

For our five-year-old son we found a Volkswagen Beatle car made from painstakingly wound steel wire and black inner-tube tyres, a carved balsa wood Dow catamaran, a set of small carved African wooden animals and a Maasai dagger in a sheath. For our seven-year-old daughter, a bundle of short denim skirts rummaged from a pile of denim on a trip to Mitumba (the second-hand market), a stack of thin multicoloured Indian bracelets, and a stash of artist materials for our daughter. Done.

And then we woke up on Christmas Day to a stunningly gorgeous sunny day with bright blue skies and the perfect temperature for sitting outside with t shirts and shorts. So, we did. We met some friends by the pool, had salmon and scrambled eggs, Bucks Fizz and roast chicken, all in glorious sunshine whilst the kids happily dived in and out of the pool with their friends.


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Joost Bastmeijer (@joostbastmeijer) által megosztott bejegyzés

Could a Christmas Day be any more perfect?

I didn’t think it could be beaten. My wife enjoyed it too but missed the Christmassy feel of it being cold, of sheltering indoors from the howling wind and miserable drizzle and darkness of a typical English Christmas Day in the West Midlands. She missed the Christmas decorations and songs in the shops; having to huddle around a fire with blankets on to watch the Queen’s Speech.

I agreed that these were missing, but I felt this was a good thing. Yes, we missed our families, of course, but that first Christmas period in Nairobi made me realise that there was another way to spend Christmas Day, equally as special a day in its oppositeness to our many UK Christmases, and I liked it. We had a few more such Kenyan Christmases, some at the coast with white sands and turquoise seas, and shells and driftwood for presents, which we interwove with cold Christmases back in the UK. I know which ones bring back the fondest and warmest memories.

Merry Christmas.

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