Lifestyle & Culture

An expat’s Christmas: The comfort of old traditions, and the best from our travels

(Editor’s note: Terry Boyd also contributed to this post. See the list of online resources at the end of the post for finding American and English Christmas speciality foods.)

The festive Christmas season for an expat can be full of emotions, regret and excitement. To begin with, you are excited by the different traditions you start to encounter and the unusual customs you witness.

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I’M STILL A LITTLE UNCOMFORTABLE WHEN I SEE A ZWARTE PIET IN THE NETHERLANDS AND FIND IT DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND HOW THAT AUSTERE BISHOP SINTERKLAAS, LEFT, FILLS EVERYONE WITH SUCH HAPPINESS. (ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF JACKIE HARDING)

dsc_0027I’m still a little uncomfortable when I see a Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands and find it difficult to understand how that austere bishop Sinterklaas fills everyone with such happiness!

I miss our “chubby and plump, right jolly old elf” version of Santa Claus, but I love seeing the children singing as they await the arrival of Sinterklaas, and like the idea of putting your shoes out every night for three weeks to find them filled with a few chocolate coins or cookies.

Christmas traditions are so personal and really do make the event for each of us.

When we lived as expats in the United States, we loved the huge, month-long “glittery” build-up to Christmas; the Holiday Walks, Christmas Cookie parties, Yankee Swap parties, concerts and carols but were always disappointed that once Christmas Day was over that was it…back to work!

We miss that build-up a little in the Netherlands but have discovered new seasonal traditions such as the wonderful Christmas markets here and over the border in Germany. There is such a feeling of Christmases past when wandering through an old German town, with a warm mug of Glühwein in your hands, choosing a traditional wooden tree ornament from a stall.

img_0547Your own personal traditions, when far from family, become very important at this time of year. Whilst in the U.S. we started a custom of attending a children’s Christmas pageant in Trinity Church Copley Square, Boston on Christmas Eve. To us it symbolized the reason for the season.

Finding an English speaking church in the Netherlands has proved a little more difficult, but we’ve spent Christmas Eve in Amsterdam just so we can attend the midnight mass at the English Reformed Church Amsterdam, in the Begijnhof, where Pilgrims once attended services prior to beginning a fresh life in the New World. There is something very reassuring about being surrounded by others also far from home, all searching for that familiar ritual.

The other detail, that becomes apparent when away from “home” during the festive season, is the need for that special food that you just can’t celebrate without! Facebook becomes full of requests for information from expats … where to buy stuffing for the turkey, canned pumpkin or mincemeat for the traditional British mince pies.

Trips to import stores in Antwerp or Den Haag are arranged, as you become fellow explorers, all searching in a foreign land for that taste from home. If anyone is visiting their homeland weeks before, they carry shopping requests for friends.

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THE AUTHOR’S GRANDMOTHER, DOROTHY WOODMAN, CIRCA 1950, SERVING THE BRITISH CHRISTMAS ESSENTIAL … A CHRISTMAS PUDDING.

The idea of celebrating Christmas, for a Brit, is absurd without mince pies or Christmas pudding, as is Thanksgiving for Americans without pumpkin pie, Poppyseed cake for the Polish, or Christmas beer for the Danes.

I recently was pulled over in security in a UK airport due the suspicious package in my carry-on … it was fondant icing for a British friend in the Netherlands!

Expats become adept, in my experience, in creating their favorite foods from scratch, which is a plus on the side for expat Christmas.

Of course the seasonal food in the Netherlands is a new experience and there is nothing better than a freshly made oliebol, a type of doughnut dusted with powdered sugar, Kerststol, a sweet fruit bread or a handful of pepernoten, the tiny delicious spice cookies.

Our countries are becoming more homogenized and finding Christmas crackers in the U.S. was once as unheard of as was finding Christmas stores in the Netherlands. (See below.)

As we become more travelled, our traditions are merging and my family celebrations now include a Yankee Swap, pepernoten, Glühwein and mince pies …  a true amalgamation of all our expat homes.

Here’s a quick list of American and British online retailers that might have the Christmas specialities you need:

• The American Market, France

The American Market based in Toulouse, France has an online store where you can get goodies such as gingerbread and eggnog.

Here is the complete list of countries where My American Market can home-deliver:

FRANCE: Metropolitan France (incl. Corsica), Monaco.

EUROPE: Germany, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Andorra, Gibraltar, Canary Islands*, Austria, Denmark, Ireland/Eire, Portugal, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Azores, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.

*Notice to Canary Islands’ customers: My American Market always ships to Canary Islands via French postal services. Since the Canary Islands is an outermost region of the European Union, customs services can retain your parcel for a few days and occasionally make you pay the IGIC tax.

French Overseas Territories: Guadeloupe (St Barthelemy and St. Martin included), Martinique, Reunion, French Guiana, Mayotte, St Pierre and Miquelon.

• Bobby’s Foodstore in Vienna

Bobby’s is a physical shop at SCHLEIFMÜHLGASSE 8 in Vienna, and claims to be the oldest British food specialty in Vienna, dating back to 1996.

• British FoodStore Online

British Food Store bases price of shipping on the overall size and weight of your parcel. See the website for more details. Here are sample prices to deliver a 25-30kg box of British food to popular expat destinations:

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They can also supply products from high street retailers such as Boots, Marks & Spencer and The Body Shop, according to the website.

• Kelly’s Expat Shopping, Netherlands

Kelly’s Expat Shopping has two bricks-and-mortar stores in the Netherlands – in the expat enclave of Wassenaar near Amsterdam, and in Den Haag. Check their website for more details.

My Little America, France

My Little America, based in Rennes, France, ships to Metropolitan France, Andorra, Monaco and French Overseas Territories. And yes,along with American baking necessities such as brown sugar (what’s up with no brown sugar in Europe?), they have essentials such as Pop-Tarts.

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