Finding the Zen in Christmas Abroad

One of the most memorable and at the same time, challenging experiences a traveller can have is celebrating a holiday abroad. It is both exhilarating and eye-opening to enjoy a holiday while overseas, but can also make you miss home and your family more than anything else. Still, there is a certain magic in learning how other people celebrate holidays around the world and is something that all travellers should try at least once in their lives.

In Canada where I am from, without a doubt the biggest holiday we celebrate is Christmas. People fly all over this vast land to be with their loved ones to give gifts, break bread together and enjoy each other’s company. Many memories that I have of Christmas growing up were of lots of snow outside, big meals with extended family, presents under the tree and lots of rushing around. It’s pretty much still the same now, except now I make mulled wine every year, which is a tradition I picked up in France.

Christmas where Christmas is a Big Deal: 

While in high school, I had the opportunity of doing a semester abroad in Mulhouse, France. I left in October, shortly after Thanksgiving and was still there for Christmas and New Years. I was nervous about spending my first Christmas away from my family, but excited to see what it was all about in France. For the most part, I had not been too afflicted by the blues that can come with culture-shock during my time there, but I definitely felt a little down around the holiday season.

My blues were lightened a little by the fact that it had snowed the most in 10 years the year I was there, so everything looked white and lovely, just like home but with a French twist. Another delight of the season, was Christmas Markets. At the time I was told that they were relatively new to that part of Europe, so I considered myself lucky to have the opportunity to take them all in. The town square in Mulhouse where I’d usually eat my lunch, was transformed into a winter wonderland of quaint little market stalls selling artisan crafts and delicious treats. I remember how 17 year old me, revelled in eating melted munster on toasted baguette, warmed crêpes with nutella and mulled wine for lunch while taking in the festive sights.

My thoughtful host family also took me around to see the Christmas markets in some of the neighboring towns and cities, including the superlative Strasbourg, which remains to this day one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.

Strasbourg, the Christmas capital.
Photocredit: www.buzzwok.com

For the holiday itself, my host family and I travelled to Lyon, where we had an even more delicious than usual dinner, and opened presents on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas morning, like English-speaking Canadians usually do. I so enjoyed the experience, but was a little sad that my family wasn’t able to connect with me over the phone like they had planned. In the days before the ubiquitous cell phone, the international phone lines had been jammed, so despite a worthy effort on my parent’s part, they weren’t able to get through. Still, my host family went out of their way to make sure I had a great time during the celebrations and I liked meeting my host family’s extended family.

New Year’s Eve was quite the affair too. A classmate and her family hosted a party at their house that to me seemed to be a castle. There was even a “kids section” and an “adults section.” Close to when the countdown was about to happen, the kids were invited to the adults room where champagne and oysters were distributed. As a 17 year old from Central Alberta, I had never felt so fancy before. After the countdown, everyone gave each other “la bise” (double kiss on the cheeks) while saying happy new year and then the kids were kicked out again. Excepting the countdown fanciness and château locale, the party was very similar to one that could be hosted in Canada. I’ll always remember it though as the time when I received one of my most strange but rewarding compliments. About 3/4 of the way through the night, a person at the party who I had never met before learned that I was Canadian, and Anglophone to boot. He told me that he was surprised to learn that, and had thought that I was French but just a little…slow. So thanks, I think?

Christmas where the Locals don’t Celebrate Christmas:

Christmas in France was magical, but what about Christmas in a place where they don’t really celebrate Christmas?

I also had the tremendous opportunity to experience Christmas in mostly Muslim Mali. Not only is there no snow, it is extremely hot outside and Christmas is not a state-recognized holiday. Thankfully, the director of the organization I worked for was nice enough to give us expats a break from work. While the locals don’t celebrate per se, they definitely recognize the season. Imagine my delight, when one of my favourite lunch spots in Bamako was all decked-out for Christmas?

This proves once and for all, that yes, they know it’s Christmas. 

I celebrated Christmas with my expatriate friends. who were mostly from Québec, so we had a big dinner and opened presents on Christmas Eve, rather than in the morning. In the lead-up, we shopped for chickens from the “chicken guy” and picked up gifts for others at the outside artisan’s market. It was a unique experience for sure, but we had a blast and some of our Muslim friends joined us too. We achieved what matters the most, which is getting everyone together and having a good time. 
Bamako’s Artisan’s Market, beats the mall. 
For New Years Eve, I asked my host mom, Fatamatou, what we would do and she told me emphatically “We eat.” So I spent the day with her helping prepare the meal, but when it came time to eat, we still did it the Malian way: men and women eat separately out of communal bowls, and I was given my own serving in a pot to eat by myself. Visits happened throughout the day, rather than cumulating at meal time and cultural practices around dividing up food remained intact. I expected a bit more of a celebration considering how much work I had seen Fatamatou put into cooking the meal, but that’s the learning of spending the holidays abroad. Not everyone in the world does it like you. 
After eating, I headed out to meet up with some of my expat friends staying across the river. We hung out in their NGO compound, dancing and drinking until the countdown and then went to dance at a bar that looked like a house. We were all having a blast when to our surprise, the DJ cut the music off around 2 in the morning and told us to clear out. While we had been dancing up a storm, bar staff had set up dozens of tables with locals patiently waiting for their late night meal. As we were leaving, we saw people being served tasty-looking fish platters and I wished that I could join them. We went back to the NGO compound before deciding to go to a club in my neighbourhood. I used the trip across the river as an excuse to go home and sleep since dancing in night clubs until 6am is not really my thing. 
The front door was locked so I banged on it a few times until groggy-looking Fatamatou came and opened the door. She said nothing to me and looked thoroughly unimpressed that I had woken her up. The next morning, she told me that if I woke her up like that again she would pile my stuff up in front of the door and leave a mattress out for me. She was only half-joking. 
On New Years Day, I sat alone in my room and cracked open my journal. I read through all the entries from the last few years as well as what I had written since arriving in Mali a few months prior and reflected on how much I had seen, learned, experienced and changed since that first trip to France. It was the most unconventional Christmas holiday I have experienced to date, but it provided a tremendous opportunity for reflection and I am grateful for that to this day. 
In short, holidaying abroad can be both magical and challenging. It also provides an opportunity to learn about other cultures, see beautiful sights, participate in local traditions, and most importantly, to reflect on what you value the most back home. 
“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” – Mary Ritter Beard

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