I am American, my husband is Dutch and our three children were born and raised in Switzerland until we moved to Japan last year.
This poses a complex and confusing situation when it comes to heritage and traditions. Children process and identify with all the little bits and pieces of the rituals swirling around them. What they grasp, what they hold on to, is complex. For our third culture children, traditions and customs are different from those of our own childhood.
In Switzerland, we followed old traditions and did all of those little things, just because it was Christmas time. We spent this time of year baking sugar cookies, getting the skis out of the cellar, visiting the Christmas markets, planning holiday menus and secretly stashing presents around the house.
Our family of five knew exactly what to do and when to do it. Christmas Eve, for example, was always spent with Tante Maria and Uncle George, with Oma and Opa and any other family members that happened to be in the Swiss mountains that night. We always ate filet mignon. We always set out sugar cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. It was a simple formula.
But what happens when you break tradition?
For us, this is a first. We are based in Tokyo as expats and even the lead-up to the holiday season is much different.
Instead of eating crêpes in Colmar or sipping a Heisse Schoggi in Konstanz or watching the street light up on the Zürich Bahnhofstrasse, we are admiring the light displays at Tokyo Midtown and going to Christmas concerts at school. We are navigating our way through a new city and strongly considering if it is really worth spending ¥40,000 for a real Christmas tree.
But, more than that, deeper and much more complex in its implications is our decision not to go home to Switzerland for Christmas. This year, we are packing our tennis rackets and our flip-flops and legging it to Australia!
It will be the first Christmas spent away for our children. There will be no snowy mountaintops, no hoards of family and gaggles of friends and none of the old traditions and customs that they knew. Instead, we are going to wear Santa hats on the beach, BBQ our Christmas lunch and take photos with Old Saint Nick under the Harbour Bridge. We will have a Christmas tree (a real one!) with lights and presents and stockings. We have told the Elf on the Shelf where we will be and even written Santa three, explicit letters with logistical instructions.
Change is normal … and should be encouraged
Some say we would be better off without the more “traditional” aspects of the typical western Christmas. I suppose we can all relate to the tendency to spend too much or eat too much or stress too much during the holidays.
I believe that traditions can change, perhaps should change, as time carries on. But, when I think about this in terms of our third culture children, I actually believed that our very programmed holiday routines would be positive and even essential for them.
We are navigating our way through a new city and strongly considering if it is really worth spending ¥40,000 for a real Christmas tree.
I was actually a little bit worried that we would be pulling the rug out from under our kids’ young, developing feet. Until I realized that they are tougher than we think. And that they perhaps understand a thing or two that we do not.
These resilient, international-minded children, they are used to the fact that their accent is different, that they hold a couple different passports or that “home” is difficult to define. They are used to not taking anything for granted and remain fully open to the world around them. They are not easily shaken or shocked.
Through their eyes, I was stunned to understand what actually is important to them at Christmas. In their words, Christmas is about people.
My kids are sad about not to going home to Switzerland because of the people they will miss. But since the five of us will be together, they say it’s going to be okay. It is more about lasting memories, created by people you love, than all the little things we do just because.
Christmas is about giving
Maybe the traditions change a little bit with time. Maybe we alter the menu or we have new people at the table. Or perhaps we spend it in our bathing suits on the beach.
But what always stays the same is the “coming together,” celebrating a few slow and important moments and feeling gratitude for the world around us. The giving, or feeling a part of something bigger than ourselves stays longer than sugar cookies or tinsel.
They are used to not taking anything for granted and remain fully open to the world around them.
For kids, especially in a world full of uncertainty, change and more than a bit of sadness, the Christmas tradition of giving is grounding.
In our Tokyo home, we are still sneaking Amazon packages in the front door and hiding bits around the flat. We are still sending packages and cards to our family and friends around the world. We are donating time and resources to those less fortunate. And we are, more than ever, remembering the people we love.
A sunshine-y Christmas in Australia is not without roots or traditions … it is perhaps just focused on what really is important.
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