Combining the old & new into the now

There is nothing like a holiday! They generate excitement, expectation, nostalgia and memories. Holidays mark certain religious, cultural or political days of note. For many, they are synonymous with family, friends, old traditions and ways of celebrating.

Virtually everyone has rituals and traditions they fall back on when celebrating holidays or life milestones. These include religious practices, social customs or unique personal activities that become family favorites.

These cultural traditions reflect the many ways in which we recognise and fete days of importance. They can serve as an anchor to a previous life, a soothing reminder of the familiar past. They can also energise and uplift as symbols of cherished celebrations and festivities.

Importance of holiday rituals

Holiday rituals can take many forms: symbols, objects, sounds, activities. Symbols are an important part of our cultural traditions. From the late Latin symbolum and late Greek symbolon meaning token or sign (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), symbols are important manifestations of cultural significance.

One such popular cultural symbol is the ring-like shape of a wreath. Symbolic of eternity, wreaths may play a part in celebrating holidays or other milestones. Adorning a door with a wreath sends a message of welcome.

Wreaths made of bright flowers may signify spring while those made of evergreens symbolise the strength that comes from being hearty enough to survive harsh winters. In some cultures, weddings may include white or light-coloured wreaths decorated with flowers and filmy materials.

Evergreen wreaths (with or without added decoration) connote winter holidays in a secular manner for many. Lay one down and add four candles and you have an Advent wreath symbolising religious preparation for the celebration of Christmas for Christians.

Ritual objects include a wide range of items, and are often integral to holiday ritual activities. Flags symbolising national affiliation may be displayed on important dates such as days of independence, recognition of war or veterans, or even popular sporting events.

An American abroad may host a Fourth of July barbeque picnic, a French family overseas may celebrate Bastille Day, a Mexican expat may celebrate Cinco de Mayo, all with flags in attendance. National teams proudly carry their country's flag during Olympic ceremonies. People from many nationalities may fly their flag during the World Cup or other international matches.

Many cultures celebrate various holidays with fireworks, perhaps with New Year's Eve being the most widely recognised worldwide. Midnight fireworks displays feature in the dropping of the Waterford crystal ball in New York City's Times Square, Australian festivities in Sydney Harbour, Chinese celebrations throughout China. Traditional special foods and drinks for holidays and other days of importance feature in virtually every culture and religion in the world.

Common ritualistic songs include national anthems, birthday songs, traditional Christmas carols. The old Scottish folk song Auld Lang Syne was transcribed and edited slightly by the poet Robert Burns, and popularised by Canadian orchestra leader Guy Lombardo when he played it at midnight in a 1929 New Year's Eve celebration at a New York City hotel. Now Auld Lang Syne is sung in many countries to ring in the new year.

Holiday challenges for expats

Holidays can be a stressful time no matter where you live. We all know of people who push themselves in a frenzy of activity, trying to recreate the "perfect" celebration. They may carry expectations that can rarely, if ever, be met. You need not be an expat to find yourself away from loved ones or in a place that does not celebrate in the same manner. 

decor table candles

Even for those who never venture further than their own hometown or city, life has a way of reminding us all that nothing ever stays the same forever. Time marches on. Family members are born, married, die. Friends come into and pass out of our lives. Our fortunes, and those of the ones we care about, may rise and fall.

Yet, holidays can be especially poignant and challenging for expats. Many are far away from family and friends, perhaps for the first time. It may not be possible to celebrate holidays important to the expat in exactly the same manner as they would like. Holidays may not be not recognised in their host countries, or are celebrated in a different manner.

Even those expats able to travel "back home" and participate in familiar holiday rituals may find that they feel a little out of place. Without a doubt, the experiences of living in a different country and culture change a person. And these changes may be intensified during holidays.

Combining the old and new into the now

So what is an expat to do? Attempting to recreate every little detail of a holiday celebration from one's childhood or home country is not feasible. Yet, trying to ignore or minimise the importance of such days only serves to intensify possible feelings of nostalgia, homesickness, loneliness, isolation.

The answer is unique to each person in their own situation, and lies somewhere in between!

"To celebrate means taking time to stop for a moment, to look back and enjoy what we have already achieved," says serial expat Natalie Tollenaere in her book The Art of Possibilities: Creating Our Path in International Mobile Life. Tollenaere continues, "Celebrating helps us to live in the present...instead of living in the future."

Go ahead and recreate as many of your traditions and holiday rituals as possible or that make you feel comfortable. If you are an expat on your second or fourth or tenth posting abroad, you may already have included rituals from each and every place you ever called "home." Incorporate new rituals - food, drink, decorations, activities, clothing, songs - that reflect the country and culture in which you currently live.

Hang a Delft ornament on your Christmas tree, try Dutch oliebollen doughnuts and kerstkoekjes, join your Dutch neighbours in setting off fireworks at midnight on New Year's Eve, go furniture shopping on January 2 with other Netherlanders.

Call or Skype with family and friends around the world. Invite new friends or fellow expats to join in your celebrations. Consider creating entirely new rituals to add to your holiday traditions. The blend of old and new represents your experiences.

"Celebrating is a way of living our lives fully," Natalie Tollenaere offers. "It is a way of expressing the core of our life and sharing our joys with those that are close to us." Combining the old and the new into the now encourages recognition of where you are on your expat journey. It is a reflection of what you hold dear while allowing in the symbols and traditions of where you happen to be right now.


Linda A. Janssen


Linda A. Janssen

Writer, author & expat living abroad and sharing the good, the less good and the just plain odd. I chronicle making a new life in NL. Always finding the upside...

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