The western ideal Christmas is characterised by snowy scenes, gifts, glowing lights and turkey. But these traditions aren’t shared globally and can be strange to expatriates from different cultures - many try and struggle to find a middle ground between their culture and that of the host country's, especially during this time of year. So, to find out how this can be managed, we spoke with Daniela Trifiletti, the Communications Coordinator for the Mobility Team at Aarhus University. Daniela is originally from Colombia and has lived in Denmark for the last six years.
1. What is a traditional Colombian Christmas like?
In Colombia, Christmas celebrations generally begin on the 7th December – this day is known as 'Día de las Velitas' or 'Day of the Little Candles'. We decorate houses and streets with lights, candles and lanterns. Many also have firework displays and enjoy traditional foods like 'buñuelos' and 'empanadas'.
We also take part in ‘novenas’ from about the 16th December until Christmas Eve. This is a really special time when family and friends get together to pray, sing carols and share food.
We have Christmas trees and it’s common for them to be decorated with candles which are red and white. A nativity scene is also a very important decoration.
One of the biggest differences is probably that we have the main celebration on Christmas Eve and this is called ‘Cena de Navidad’. We eat meals such as ‘lechona’ which is pork stuffed with rich and peas, ham or turkey. A really popular dessert is ‘Natilla’ – which is similar to custard. Many people also attend a church service that night and stay up quite late so Christmas day is more for relaxing.
2. What was it like when you first moved to Denmark and experienced a Danish Christmas?
Well, to be honest, the Danish traditions were very unfamiliar to me when I first moved. But as I experienced them one by one – like how Danish people will fell down their tree and dance around it on Christmas Eve – and I understood the meaning behind them I began to enjoy them and embrace them as my own.
3. What advice would you give to an expatriate experiencing new traditions at Christmas?
Saying things like ‘no one does the duck like grandma did’, ‘the smell of fresh pine can never be replaced’, or ‘there is nothing like a novena home’ are phrases I hear often and I don’t think that kind of thinking helps. Yes, it’s true that traditions in your host country might be extraordinarily different from those that shaped your days while growing up but that’s okay. Once you overcome that initial stage and accept that where you are now is different, you can start admiring some of the unique elements that characterise the celebrations in your host location. Holding tight to memories is a way to preserve relationships and remember the places you have been, yet sometimes it prevents you from embracing new experiences.
4. So how can expatriates ‘reinvent’ special celebrations to ensure they enjoy the festive period?
I think the key is not to forget all you know but to instead make room in your life to incorporate unique elements from your new surroundings. This will create an even richer environment for you, your family members and friends.
This isn’t always easy but I’ve found that generally, expats have the extraordinary ability to bring in the best of their own culture to celebrations whilst also embracing new ones.
I think it’s about allowing your holiday traditions to be shaped by your life experiences – see it as an adventure and be flexible. You can handpick your favourite celebratory elements from each country and take them with you as you travel making a ‘tailor-made’ holiday that’s unique to you.
5. Is this something you do with your family?
Yes absolutely, our family holiday traditions are fully shaped by what each of us brings to the table. We once celebrated in Bogota and I managed to bake rye bread and served a traditional Danish pork dish, yet this year our Christmas in Denmark is characterized by the big natural pine tree in the living room, the background villancicos in Spanish and some Swedish dishes we will get on Christmas Eve.
When I first moved, I feared that the lively Christmas parties filled with music, instruments and dance nights that I was used too in Colombia would be gone, however, I now know that I can still experience these things by incorporating it into a traditional Danish celebration – I now organise this to happen right after the long dinner and in between playing the traditional games!
6. Do you have any practical tips for how an expat can plan a ‘multicultural’ Christmas?
The best thing to do is take time to recollect all those things you have learned during your travels. Write them down, talk to others about them and decide what you enjoy and what you want to continue doing. Make a game plan for those things in advance and at the end of it, you will have the ‘ingredients’ for your new holiday mix. If you can, don’t do this alone! People around you will be thrilled to experience something new so make sure to include your friends or other expatriates!
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