(Not) Home for the Holidays

It’s already almost halfway through October (where does the time go?) and in order to get myself through the thought of another London winter, I’m starting to set my sights on the holidays.

With Canada’s Thanksgiving just gone, America’s Thanksgiving in late November, Halloween at the end of October, and then Christmas and New Year’s, this time of year back home is always packed with friends, family, decorations, and (let’s be honest, most importantly) food.Americans have a certain way of celebrating the holidays that doesn’t quite translate into English culture. Sure, you might take the kids out to Trick-or-treat on Halloween and carve a small pumpkin you bought from Sainsburys, but it doesn’t compare to the multiple ‘haunted houses’ on every street in America and the Halloween-specials that start airing weeks beforehand.

While Christmas is a major holiday in both countries, the English seem to be a notch more subdued about the whole thing (and likely think Americans are crazy for going too far). It’s not uncommon to see Christmas lights on houses in England, but one string of sophisticated white lights is a far cry from the massive spectacle that Americans make of their homes.

Thousands of lights of all colors, animatronic reindeer, life-size blown up snowmen and an LED projection onto the garage that says “MERRY CHRISTMAS” is not an unusual sight back home. In England, your neighbors might hate you for putting up such a display, where in America, your neighbors will gossip about you if you keep it too subtle. “Wow,” I remember my Dad saying one year as we passed a house with plain white lights around a single bush, “I think I found where the Grinch lives!”

This isn’t to say that English holiday celebrations are boring or American holidays are tacky (though I draw the line at an inflatable Jesus figure in the front yard), but rather that life as an expat allows you to experience the holidays in a whole new way.

I’ve also started to share my own traditions with friends and coworkers, mostly with great success, and sometimes with a little trepidation. While Thanksgiving is a North American holiday, my coworkers at a job in London a few years ago got together to have the dining hall serve traditional Thanksgiving food for me that day. I then requested that my immediate team all sit down and have lunch together and go around the table saying the things we were thankful for (partly because it’s American tradition, and partly because I wanted to watch them squirm). The looks on the faces of my English colleagues who were not accustomed to having to show the level of emotion required from a “What I’m thankful for…” speech were priceless.

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This will be my third holiday season in a row away from my family, but I’ve learned to adapt each year. Last year I was on Skype with my mom as she handed out candy to trick-or-treaters at our house and said hello to a few of the neighbor’s kids. I spend Christmas with my boyfriend’s family in England, and then call my parents in America that evening as they’re opening presents and about to sit down to their meal. This year we’re talking about how to put lights on our stand-alone flat and we have a traditional day out in London where we go ice skating and marvel at the decorations on Oxford street. It’s not exactly what I’m used to, but it goes a long way towards making me feel at ‘home.’

Of course, the real treat for me comes on Boxing Day, which isn’t celebrated in America, as I enjoy the day off in England while my friends and family back home are suddenly back to ‘reality.’ That is truly the best of both worlds.

What are you planning on doing for the holidays this year as an expat? Celebrating old traditions, making new ones, or a bit of both?

Kalyn is a Communications professional who moved to the rainy UK after growing up in Orlando, Florida. She writes about her experiences (and her failed attempts to find the sun) on her blog, Girl Gone London.


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