Our Christmas preparatons literally began months ago, because it takes a long time to ramp up over here. First, a year in advance, we learn from experience exactly what we can’t get here and exactly what we miss the most. Like, perhaps, the smell of a christmas tree, singing Christmas carols, and some certain special kind of food. And so those items are what we single out to carry over here in our suitcases. Christmas napkins, decorations, special foods and spices (like cloves and nutmeg), santa gifts, music CD’s, christmas scented candles — even movies like "Miracle on 34th Street," and "Frosty" — were purchased months in advance during trips to the USA and carried back here by hand. Don’t even think of asking how my British friend got her English parsnips and sweet turnips here, because I have no idea myself!
Then, there’s the local shopping. It takes six to eight weeks for gifts shipped from here to reach the USA, if they’re shipped by boat. So our Christmas shopping almost literally needs to begin in September and be completed by early October. I didn’t make the deadline this year, but I did better than in previous years. This year, things got shipped about two weeks before Christmas, which means my relatives will get their Christmas gifts in late January. I gave up on being a perfectionist years ago. In fact, I’ve hit the wall (of my own limitations) so many times in my life that I’ve just learned to decrease my expectations of what I can get done. So, sorry to say, but four weeks late is as good as it gets this year! Looking on the bright side, it gives me room for improvement next year!
After living here a few years, I learned there isn’t really Christmas over here, after all. Our traditions are as strange and outlandish to non-X’ns as voodoo might be to our mainstream people in the USA. My mind has been expanded by learning about my Indian friends’ celebration of Diwali. In like minded spirit, I decided that, now that my feet are on the ground here, it was time for me to share some of my traditions with my neighbors. Even the Europeans have very different Christmas traditions. So . . . I volunteered to play Christmas songs at J’s school, and I also volunteered to speak at the YWCA about American Christmas Traditions.
J and C went with me on the morning I spoke at the Y. These are ladies who are in training to be housekeepers for foreign families. It is helpful for them to have some knowledge of foreign festivals and traditions. C wanted me to emphasize how the gifts are all a big SECRET that is saved as a surprise for Christmas day. She wanted to emphasize this particularly because even this year, the third year SY has worked for us, she gets so excited when she knows there is a gift in the house for someone that she pulls it out and gives it to them as soon as they come home. The first year, SY gave J her Santa gifts about three different times, which meant that we kept having to shop for new Santa stuff. Even after we told her, she didn’t seem to catch on. For instance, this month I purchased a belt for C and put it in my room to wrap up for Christmas. As soon as C came home that day, SY brought it down stairs, handed it to C, and said, "Mommy! For you!"
The housekeeper trainees were particularly enthralled with J’s joyous, obvious anticipation of Santa. I’m strictly not allowed to proselytize or teach, and I follow that rule. But I am allowed to share. And so, I share honestly from my own experience. My last talk at the Y was about Thanksgiving, and I told them our Christmas preparation begins right after that, with Advent. I told them about the four Sundays of Advent, the five candles in the Advent wreath, that Advent is a time of anticipation, anticipating the birth of Jesus. This leads in a circle back to the child’s anticipation of Santa, and how the original Santa was a celebration of the gift of God’s love through Jesus.
Christmas as Jesus’s birthday? What a novel idea! You certainly could have fooled me, for all that anyone mentions it over here, Americans or Europeans alike! I did mention this crucial fact about the origin of Christmas, since it’s the underpinning of everything that Christmas stands for, including our tradition of giving gifts. I also shared my family’s Advent traditions, including our activities in our USA church, our advent wreath, our Christmas tree and its decorations, our scented Christmas candle, poinsettias (which we carried to the classroom), home made Christmas cards we showed, an Advent calendar that had a piece of chocolate for each person. I read "The Night Before Christmas" even though nobody knew the words. And then, we sang some Christmas carols. (I confess, I get so tired of "Here Comes Santa Claus" being the only Christmas song one hears around here!)
I also tell them about other Americans who don’t celebrate Christmas at all. For instance, I told them about my Jewish friend Mark, whose Christmas tradition is takeout pizza and a movie. And I told them about Hannukah and menorahs and Kwaanza. I believe, and think most Americans agree, that first Amendment freedoms are also a crucial part of our Christmas traditions. It’s important for non-Americans to know that not everyone in the USA is the same religion and we protect that right of freedom and freedom of discussion and belief. And, with great enthusiasm, Julianna told them exactly about how Santa would arrive and when, and she shared her Santa list with them. They loved to hear about it. They had a good chuckle when they heard thingshe included on her list such as makeup and an IPod. Exactly what is on my list, as well, they said!
It’s very flattering to speak to these ladies. The last time I was there, they asked for my autograph. I’m not sure how much English they understand, but I do think can be a valuable experience for them. Even, just to know that someone cares for them. After my talk at Easter, one of the housekeepers sent word through the grapevine she was glad she had heard my talk about Easter, because when her family sent her out for two dozen eggs, she knew to buy white ones for dyeing.
Returning to the subject of how we forge our new Christmas traditions while we are in a foreign land, there is also the issue of eldest daughter now alone in USA. Her main Christmas gift this year was her ticket to Ireland, plus a few small things, but there were things to be done to help make sure she didn’t get too homesick! Her dad supplied a stocking and small artificial tree for her room . . . . to make things a bit more cheery during those dismal dark days of late fall, when it turns dark so early, coupled with her first experience of college final exams. She finished her last exam on December 16, and she told us she wanted to celebrate a family Christmas together on December 17. So, on December 17th, Christmas with S was our first real, family "Christmas event." Thanks to Skype (http://www.skype.com ) we were able to have S "join" us at our dining room table on the Sunday before she left for Ireland, and we had a family Christmas celebration together.
It’s a bit odd to have your daughter embodied as a talking head on a computer screen, and then to carry the computer around the room to show her things on the camera. But, it’s a lot better than nothing; in fact it seems nothing short of a miracle for an ordinary family to be able to have a child join them for a wireless teleconference at the dining room table, linked from room in a university just about exactly on the other side of the earth! We did the same thing Christmas morning, while she was in Ireland. Miracles never cease! You can see the photos on the Christmas photo album (also this Blog).
Music is always a big part of our Christmas, and our celebration with S was no exception. There was a time delay as S sang along with us from the other side of the world (kind of like the lag between the microphone and the crowds cheering in a football stadium), but we all just ignored it and enjoyed the moment for what it was. It’s not really about quality of the music, but about sharing it all together.
Then, we needed to plan our party. There was this burning question about when to have the party and who to invite. After all, we actually don’t even know the religious bent of most of our friends here. Additonally, in their home countries, most people who care about Christmas would have been with family or at church on Christmas eve, but here nobody has a family or church, to speak of. We calculated, what better time to plan something than when people would have a hole in their traditional schedule. So, we issued invitations to everyone in our address book to come sing Christmas carols with us from 2 – 4 on Christmas eve. We got RSVP’s from 6 people that they would be joining us. So then, I typed up song sheets to use for singing. And started practicing my guitar. What I do is literally hum and strum. This works okay with first graders, but maybe more is needed if adults are present. Old fingers might actually need to make cords and hit the right strings. Okay, so practice a bit every day.
In the meantime, friends K and J with their children arrived in town from another city, and we scheduled dinner together. Our kids had such a good time they extended their pizza night to include a holiday sleepover. D offered to make pancakes for everyone when they return to collect children. We had a wonderul time!
Then, there was planning a menu and buying food for the party. My neighbor managed to find English Stilton for HER party, but the best I could do was Georgia Pecans (thanks to my friend Betty who sent them in D’s suitcase). How do these relate to one another? Well, what is your best approximation of a party food that feels like comfort food? Mine is a cheeseball with extra sharp cheddar, cream cheese, some worcestershire sauce, some shallot, some hot pepper, all rolled up in roasted pecan pieces and served with ritz crackers. Hers is English Stilton cheese with fruit. We both had it. I even had enough roasted pecan halves to put out a dish of them. And boy, was my Yankee candle that smells like Christmas a big hit! I must say, we are "The hostesses with the mostesses!" Would you believe, we had carried over a Stover fruit cake and forgot to put it on the table? More for us on Christmas day!
We were off to a good start. As they say, the spirit of Christmas was abundant: sharing, caring, good food, friends, music, and yes even the Christmas story.