My search for a traditional, fairy tale holiday season started when I was very young growing up in Minnesota.
I learned what traditional holidays were from TV, of course. I watched the usual American holiday favourites such as Frosty the Snowman, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life and admired the snow-covered landscapes, the carollers, the steaming mugs of something, and the good will to all.
And then there were the TV shows made by Disney, which were based on real fairy tales; these were the best of all. A ye olde scene from Europe, where snow fell artfully on steep pitched roofs and a glow of honest cheer shone through window panes onto the thick drifts below before a sleigh zipped past with prancing horses and bells making every passenger so jolly they simply had to burst into song.And then there were the TV shows made by Disney, which were based on real fairy tales; these were the best of all. A ye olde scene from Europe, where snow fell artfully on steep pitched roofs and a glow of honest cheer shone through window panes onto the thick drifts below before a sleigh zipped past with prancing horses and bells making every passenger so jolly they simply had to burst into song.
In Minnesota we had snow falling artfully on pines and roofs all winter, not just during the holidays. We often had so much snow during the holiday season that we were more or less snowed in on Christmas Day—parents were wise to ensure that at least one of the presents for children was a game of some sort or there wouldn’t be much jolly to cause spontaneous sing songs.
And there were no sleighs, but we went skiing–both cross country and downhill and when we came in from the cold someone’s mom will have made monster cookies and hot apple cider (non-alcoholic) or eggnog and we’d string popcorn and cranberries together for pretty garlands to hang on the tree or around the house. Mom would read through the paper to find out where the best Christmas light displays were and after dinner one night we’d all bundle in the car and drive around looking at them, glowing multicolours across the snow white front lawns.
It was fun, but it wasn’t a traditional European fairy tale holiday season. I yearned to experience what Walt had showed me in those Disney versions of winter wonderlands for all those years.
And then I moved to England. My first holiday season in England first holiday season in England was a bit of a surprise. Although I lived in a very beautiful part of England and it enchanted me in many ways, there were no steep pitched roofs covered artfully in snow and there were no Dickensian characters scurrying to and from warm family homes, opening thick wooden doors and casting a glow of warm hearths across the snow—there was no snow. There weren’t even any twinkly lights, very few people in the area where I lived hung Christmas lights then, except perhaps on their Christmas trees.
Now I still live in England and although I haven’t found that fairy tale European holiday season, I’ve discovered how to create a traditional one—with our own traditions. We hang white twinkly lights in the hedge as well as in the house and we decorate the tree with ornaments we’ve collected as a family over the years. We always have a Christmas Eve party for friends and neighbours where we serve mulled wine and mulled apple juice. We watch Christmas specials on TV and we have a tradition that after we open our presents we go to the computer and choose a charity to donate to. Popular ones in our family are usually the charities set up to give gifts to people in other countries, such as goats for this village or school books for that.
Oh, and I make a gingerbread house every year, with steep roofs covered in a thick covering of white icing, melted candy to make windows and I place a tea light inside to show the warm glow. No one knows why I insist on doing this so much, but they love that we do.
Michelle Garrett is an American expat making a life in Britain for over 20 years. Yes, she's still homesick for the States and yes, she'd be homesick for Britain if she moved back there!
Michelle is a freelance writer and blogs at The American Resident.
Read Michelle's other Expat Focus articles here.