Have you ever wondered how Christmas is celebrated around the world? We bring you six short stories from expats who are living in far flung corners of the globe.
The Christmas Hat – An expat Christmas in Punta del Este, Uruguay
By David Hammond
It is a little after 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve and I am getting a chivito at Chiviterio Marcos. (A chivito is a popular Uruguayan sandwich.) Tonight at two a.m. the place will be full, but since it so early the only other people here are a family from California, with their two young children. (Uruguayans dine late.) The workers at Chiviteria Marcos have just finished prepping, when an elderly man comes in from the street selling Christmas hats.
The hats are made of red felt with a fury white band – like Santa’s hat, only smaller. I am surprised to see the young men who work at Chiviterio Marcos so interested in the hats. They all buy one. Shortly after, as I finish my chivito, the formerly very quiet chivito makers all come out in front wearing their personality transforming Christmas hats to wish me a warm and hearty Feliz Navidad.
The Christmas hats must have come on a truck, because within half an hour they are in wide circulation. A car full of young surfers, donned in beach trunks and Christmas hats position themselves on the side of the road (where everyone will soon be passing on the way to the seawall to watch the sunset) to wave at traffic.
At a little before 9 p.m. people gather at the seawall, where more Christmas hats are seen. A few hours after sunset, it is midnight and fireworks are going off from several beaches, as well as flares from some of the yachts anchored in the harbor. At 12:40 the fireworks are dying down and people take to the street to get something to eat and start a night of Christmas celebration. One young woman walking with a group of friends (who is wearing a Christmas hat) holds her arms over her head and yells, Feliz Navidad – WOOOOOO!
After dinner, friends start text messaging to wish each other a Merry Christmas and to plan out the night. At the same time many families spend Christmas Eve at home with loved ones, with wrapped presents and a few simple decorations. For traditional Uruguayans, the love of family is the center of their identity and culture.
It is a little before 11 a.m. on Christmas day and the first wave is coming out for breakfast – the two restaurants closest to my apartment are playing the Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith at a celebrative volume. I have not heard any Christmas music, and none of the businesses on the main street have Christmas decorations.
What I have learned this year is that even though I am separated from friends and family; and there are no presents, no decorations, and no Christmas music, I can carry the spirit of Christmas within myself as long as I have the love of Christ and a Christmas hat.
David Hammond is the author of Buying Real Estate in Uruguay – an ebook you can purchase and download now
Christmas in Hangzhou – People’s Republic of China
By Tracy Zhang
Holiday festivities in the People’s Republic of China differ in various provinces, cities, counties and even villages. In the past ten years, due particularly to China becoming the manufacturer of commercial Christmas commodities such as lights, ornaments, wreaths, artificial trees, and toys, all of China has taken to decorating for this unusual Western holiday.
Anyone who does business in China knows that Yiwu, Zhejiang Province, is the international epicenter for Christmas product manufacturing and distribution. This makes nearby Hangzhou, the provincial capital, a major consumer of readily available Christmas decorations.
The city, one of China’s most beautiful spots, boasts tea, silk, and tourism as major industries. As December approaches rather than becoming “lit up” with the red and green and gold colors of Christmas, Hangzhou becomes even “more lit up,” adding only additional nuance to its already attractively decorated streets.
By the time December rolls around, Hangzhou is just starting to bristle with the energy that leads into Chunjie or Spring Festival, when the entire city explodes with the celebration of the Chinese New Year. With that perspective, Christmas in Hangzhou seems like a B-team warm up for the truly important month long holiday that is Spring Festival.
For the holidays, Hangzhou’s old city around the West Lake takes on the look of a town that has the penultimate commercial spirit of Christmas. All the shops, as well as kiosks around the Lake and the boats on the Lake, sparkle with the traditional reds and greens of Christmas. Throughout December, shops light up with strands of Christmas lights and wreaths. Outdoors, lovely trees, both natural and artificial, are strung with lights and ornaments. The broad avenues lined with old poplar trees have long banners strung over the roads between the trees to welcome all into and throughout the city during the Christmas season.
All in all, Hangzhou celebrates the “look” of Christmas in a more abundant and luxurious way than do most Western cities. If you are an ex-pat in China and in need of a seasonal holiday boost, Hangzhou is the place to visit!
About the author: Tracy Zhang recently retired and now spends her time downsizing and helping others do the same. Visit her shop at http://www.charliebear.etsy.com to check out her patterns, e-books, and vintage items.
Christmas in Dubai
By Judy Rickatson
Although the holiday decorations don’t appear until December (a welcome relief if you’re used to seeing them right after Halloween) many find the malls and stores in Dubai are more festive than in most Christian countries. True, snowmen and Christmas trees are more popular than nativity scenes, but the message is clear, Christmas is welcomed in Dubai, particularly if those who celebrate it have money to spend.
Almost all hotels offer Christmas lunches, brunches, dinners and teas and some throw in carol singers and visits from Santa himself. Dubai’s churches (there are both Catholic and non-denominational) provide the usual services and concerts. Western expat schools host Christmas bazaars and concerts, much to the bemusement of parents who have long ago seen such traditions disappear back home.
Those from northern hemisphere can enjoy the novelty of a Christmas picnic on the beach, while those from the south can take to the slopes at the indoor ski hill at Mall of the Emirates or skate at one of 3 indoor ice rinks.
Just be warned that December 25th is not a public holiday, although many private companies do give their employees the day off. The upside though is that all stores and public transit are operational on the big day, so no worries if you forget to buy stuffing or some other Christmas essential!
Christmas in Buenos Aires – Argentina
By Delores Johnson
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, Christmas is a summer holiday. Being from the USA, after living here for five years, I am still shocked to see Christmas decorations, gift items, and special foods for Christmas among swimming pool and picnic supplies and lawn furniture. Here you can spend Christmas Day swimming in your pool, not shoveling snow.
Young people here start going out to clubs around midnight on Christmas Eve and will return at daybreak on Christmas Day. I celebrate Christmas Eve with a large family that is more oriented to celebrating at home on Christmas Eve. The parents who are in their 70s host the holiday celebrations at their house.
Before the three sons and their wives and children arrive, the father fires up the barbecue. We start gathering around 9 pm for a dinner at 10 pm, outside around the picnic table. We eat almost every kind of meat imaginable with bread and salads. Dessert is often ice cream, Italian-style, delivered that evening.
Fireworks start when it becomes dark but they seem to reach intensity between 11 pm and 1 am. The floating lanterns from China are beautiful. They are small paper parachutes, about a foot and a half across, with a burning pot below. The pot has a candle or another burning substance. The heat from the candle raises the lantern like a balloon and it floats across the sky. Even though it is nighttime you can see the lantern because of the fire below it.
Although some young children receive gifts from Santa Claus in Argentina, gifts are not exchanged in this family. They wait until January 6th and The Three Kings bring gifts to the young children. Christmas Eve is a time to spend together as a family.
Christmas in Los Ayala, Nayarit – Mexico
By Christina Stobbs
The poinsettia is native to Mexico and has been associated with Christmas celebrations since the 17th century. There is a legend connected with the poinsettia which tells the story of a young boy who walked to the church in his village to visit the Nativity scene. Upon arrival, the young boy realized that he had nothing to offer the Christ Child and decided to gather some green branches which he found growing along the road. When he laid the branches by the manger, a beautiful red star-shaped flower blossomed on each branch.
Traditionally Christmas festivities in Mexico begin with “Las Posada’s” which consist of nine consecutive days of candlelight processions and parties, starting on December 16th. The festivities of Las Posadas reflect Joseph and Mary’s nine day journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Christmas Eve is the last night of the posada and the local people typically attend midnight mass at the town church and return home to enjoy dinner with their families.
In Los Ayala, the local children delight in a game in which “Piñatas”, typically resembling a doll, teddy bear or Santa Claus, filled with candy and then suspended from the ceiling on a rope. Each child is blindfolded and attempts to break the Piñata with a stick. The child who succeeds is the hero of the party, and shares the candy with all the children in attendance.
We purchase Piñatas at the local store, stuff them with candy and distribute them to the less affluent families who live in our neighbourhood. The delight on the children’s faces and puts us into the Christmas Spirit.
We celebrate Christmas Eve in a traditional manner but we roast our turkey on the BBQ because frankly it is too hot here, to roast a turkey in the oven. I bake shortbread and spice cookies, which our neighbours think are absolutely scrumptious. We decorate the outside of our house with Christmas lights, and we even have an artificial Christmas tree adorned with the latest decorations from Wal-Mart.
On Christmas day we pack our swimsuits and a picnic lunch, and hire a boat and driver for the day, to explore the beaches along our coast. We delight in watching humpback whales cavort in ocean, snorkelling at a nearby island, and just strolling along our beautiful beach. To end the day we crack open a bottle of champagne and jump in our pool for a dip, just because we can!
A Catalan Christmas
By Paul Allen
Throughout the Spanish province of Catalonia the shops and streets are lit by Christmas lights, the trees decorated with glinting baubles. Santa Claus figures peer out from windows, while Jingle Bells plays in the background. It’s almost like being back in the States.
Yet Catalonia has its idiosyncratic traditions too. One – less common in Barcelona, but found across the rest of the region, especially in rural areas – is tió de Nadal (the Christmas log).
They can be bought in various sizes, but essentially it is a hollow tree log, commonly raised on one end by short stick legs, and with a painted face and stuck-on nose on the front (I know, but bear with me on this). The tió is ‘fed’ every night in the run up to Christmas. Then, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, depending on the family’s preference, it is beaten with a stick to a special accompanying song and ordered to ‘poo’ out its treats of sweets or nuts.
It may sound somewhat bizarre, but is – or so I am told by the teachers at my daughter’s school – a magical event for the children.
Christmas Day, meanwhile, is celebrated, but in a lower-key way than is the case in North America and some other parts of Europe. Rather, across Spain the big present-giving ceremonies are reserved for Epiphany on January 6th, known as El Día de los Reyes (The Day of the Kings). For this is the day when the Three Kings came to see Jesus in the stable, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Nevertheless, Santa Claus and Christmas Day gifts are slowly encroaching into the Spanish calendar – the power, I guess, of Disney and Coca Cola!
Paul Allen is a freelance journalist and writer who has lived in northern Spain since 2003. He is the author of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go? The Truth About Moving Abroad And Whether It’s Right For You,” a comprehensive guide for anyone seeking advice on whether or not to move abroad.
For more details about the book, and free information and advice on moving and living overseas, visit his website at http://www.expatliving101.com/.