Living Abroad During the Holiday Season

Heather Green is an Art teacher and a photographer currently residing in California. Originally from Serbia, she moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 11. Her formal education has been filed with ups and downs due to the language barrier and the transition she had to make in order to fit into the new system. However, once she discovered photography her interests shifted. She graduated from USD majoring in art. After graduating Heater took upon traveling, and eventually ended up living and working in Spain for a year. Balkans has always been a huge part of her life. All of her extended family is still there, and she goes back as often as possible. At the moment Heather is working on photography projects for several on-line magazines.


Growing up in Balkans has been hectic; however, it will always be the part of my identity. Though I love the holiday spirit in the US, it’s very different from the holiday spirit I remember from my childhood. I think of that every time winter rolls around. And though it makes me nostalgic or even wistful sometimes, ultimately I celebrate. Every country has its different holiday traditions and that diversity is something that should be celebrated.

Sometimes it feels like US holiday traditions are the only ones we know. But I’ve travelled extensively throughout my life, celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving in many places, and I’ve gained a deeper appreciation of the holidays through doing that. Here are some of the ways in which winter celebrations differ.

The Food

Often people’s favorite part of a holiday is the food! And the winter holidays are known for their meat roasts – animals are fattened up for the winter and then eaten. But what gets eaten tends to vary a little from place to place. British people quite like a goose on Christmas day, whilst Americans, already full of turkey from Thanksgiving, might go for ham or beef instead.

Italians, on the other hand, like to have fish at Christmas. They call this the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” and it is indeed a feast. It was originally done to commemorate the wait for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve, but now it’s more of an excuse to sit down with family and enjoy some seafood. The nation of Slovakia also enjoys fish at Christmas – so much so that some people buy their fish in advance and keep them in the bath.

Americans might find that odd, but they’ll probably wholeheartedly approve of a Japanese tradition. Japanese people, most of whom don’t celebrate traditional Christmas, like to go and get KFC on that day. Awesome!

The Activities

Ever heard of the Christmas pantomime? I’ve seen one or two in their birthplace of Britain and I don’t know how well they would fly on the other side of the pond. They’re kiddie-orientated stage shows in which men dress as women, women dress as men, songs are sung and a jolly good time is had by all.

If that’s not your thing, let’s look right across the globe to Australia. Due to the glorious sunshine there, an Australian Christmas is often spent on the beach with a barbecue. The hot weather doesn’t stop people dressing up as Santa either, sometimes even hopping onto their surfboards dressed as him! If you’re not Australian, you really have to visit Australia during the Christmas time. It’s a blast.

Other, weirder activities take place elsewhere. Ever seen the horror movie Krampus? It’s based on a figure from Austrian legend who punishes naughty children at Christmas. And on the streets of Austria on December 5 you can meet him face-to-face. Well, meet someone dressed as him anyway.

Want something lighter? In Serbia people gather around on the Christmas eve and make a huge bonfire. Burning of Badnjak, usually made out of oak tree, symbolising the wood used to warm up the barn in which Jesus was born.

The Decorations

American households love to go all out with extravagant light displays around their houses, sometimes attempting to one-up the neighbours while doing so, but not everyone else does that sort of thing. Brits for example generally consider too many outdoor lights to be over-the-top and prefer to hang a simple wreath on the door or a (fake, safe!) candle in the window.

Ukrainian people have a nice tradition. Christmas trees in that country are often decorated with artificial spider webs, which pay homage to an old story about a woman who could not afford to decorate her Christmas tree. When she woke up on Christmas morning, she found that spiders had decorated it for her with their webs.

In Finland, people decorate their houses with Himmeli, an ornament made out of straw, in order to ensure that the next year’s crop will be good. Kids make Himmeli in schools, and of course there are usually beautiful ones made by adults to be found in Finland markets at Christmas.

The range of Christmas traditions outside the US is incredible! When living abroad the holiday season tends to become nostalgic time of the year because we miss our loved ones. However, you should look at it as an opportunity to learn about and engage in domestic traditions. It’s also the best time to reach out to people and make friends because everyone is in good spirits. Therefore, wherever you might be you should take the holiday season with an open hearts and minds, and it won’t cease to amaze.

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