What are a multicultural family’s Christmas traditions like? Wakanyi Hoffman shares her family’s experience.
This December marks fourteen Christmas celebrations as a mom. As an expat family accustomed to being on the move, we have marked this holiday in countless countries, often away from our families in Kenya and the US.
We currently live in Groningen, a province in the north of the Netherlands. This is our seventh country of residence, and since moving here 18 months ago, this year will be our first Christmas celebration in our adopted home.
Last year, we spent the holiday tucked away in a small alpine village in Austria. We experienced many firsts, such as the thrill of strolling around a traditional Christmas market searching for last-minute handmade gifts and attending a Mass in Latin on Christmas Day.
Throughout our travels, we have kept some family traditions and incorporated new ones picked up along the way. Every year, our Christmas has a unique cultural addition, depending on where in the world we live.
Putting Up The Christmas Tree
As soon as Thanksgiving dinner is over, our Christmas tree goes up. Since our first Christmas as a family, this has been the rule, an ode to our American side. However, the ornaments on the tree are an eclectic collection from all the places we have been, including animal carvings, a miniature Maasai hut, and a mini tuk-tuk, all telling exciting tales about our intercultural experience.
Once the tree is up we gather all our Christmas storybooks, wrap them up and place them around the tree. Then each night from December 1, we take turns unwrapping a new book to be read while sitting around the fire, drinking tea or hot chocolate with cookies. This year, we discovered a non-alcoholic gluhwein for children, which was added to the selection of beverages for the read-aloud session, much to our children’s delight!
The idea of reading Christmas stories while drinking hot chocolate is borrowed from the Icelandic season called Jolabokaflod, which translates to the Christmas book flood. Admittedly, many of our Christmas books are Scandinavian tales, such as the much-beloved Swedish story of The Yule Tomte and the Little Rabbits by Ulf Stark and Eva Eriksson, told over twenty-five chapters, one for each day of advent.
But over the years, our Christmas books collection has grown to include stories from diverse cultural backgrounds. One of our favourite books is The Legend of the Poinsettia by Tomie dePaola, an adaptation of a folktale from Mexico. Learning about the origins of various Christmas traditions is always a great reminder that Christmas is celebrated differently around the world, and gives us new fun activities to try out.
Celebrating Sinterklaas While Waiting For Santa
Christmas day is not a formal affair in the Netherlands. In fact, it is scarcely celebrated. Instead, on December 5, Dutch children eagerly await the arrival of Sinterklaas, who is arguably their traditional version of Santa, and his presence marks the country’s version of Christmas.
The night before Sinterklaas arrives, children across the country leave their shoes outside the door, with a carrot for Sint. It is said that Sint and his helpers dash from house to house, leaving sweet treats and gifts. This is similar to Santa descending down the chimney on Christmas eve and placing gifts by the Christmas tree.
While it is also unlikely to see elaborate Christmas decorations inside or outside Dutch people’s houses, the supply of chocolates and pepernoten (cinnamon-spiced mini cookies) in the days leading to Sinterklaas’ arrival seems infinite. Children bring home treats from school, after school clubs, play dates, and receive more from neighbors, shopkeepers, and even the supermarket’s check-out staff!
While this is mainly a celebration for children, grown-ups also participate in a thoughtful exercise of Sinterklaasgedicht, the tradition of exchanging poems with loved ones, accompanied by the exchange of modest gifts. The poems are supposed to reveal who the gift is for and are usually written humorously, sometimes even detailing the less-than-positive traits of the person receiving the gift.
This year, we incorporated this exercise into our family holiday traditions and decided to play secret sint, which is most popular among school children. For our large family of six, we dedicated an afternoon to composing poems and wrapping small gifts for each other and then spent the evening reading out our poems and exchanging the gifts. But instead of highlighting each other’s flaws, we decided to write positive attributes about each other’s personalities.
The Night Before Christmas
Christmas eve in our house is an American affair. Santa’s cookies, milk, and carrot are strategically placed on a table next to the tree, anticipating his arrival the night before Christmas, as he comes bearing gifts for the sleeping children. On the morning of Christmas Day, we have held onto my husband’s family tradition of waking up before dawn to a breakfast of homemade cinnamon rolls. This recipe has been dutifully passed down several generations. After breakfast, we gather around the tree for the gift-opening ceremony. The whole exercise is over by sunrise, by which time some of the children require a nap!
As the children amuse themselves with new gifts, parents prepare a traditional meal consisting of foods such as baked ham, cheesy potatoes, green beans, and sweet potatoes, closely resembling a thanksgiving dinner. This is usually served as a late lunch and we all dress up formally for it.
However, over the years, the menu has expanded to incorporate new dishes that reflect our host country. This year, I will attempt to bake the kerststol, a bread made with dried fruits soaked in liquor and stuffed with almond paste. This is similar to the traditional German stollen bread, or the English Christmas fruit cake, which is usually prepared in late August, and enjoyed throughout the Christmas holidays.
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The Twelve Days Of Christmas Safari
December 26 is the official first day of Christmas. From this day on we usually end the evening with the family’s African rendition of the French Twelve Days of Christmas, recalling some of the animals we have seen while on safari in Kenya. This often turns into an oral storytelling session, reminiscent of my childhood days. It prompts us to talk about the people we miss, the experiences we have had, and the places we wish to return.
This year, I finally published our version of this song in a picture book, The Twelve Days of Christmas Safari, now available on Amazon. The book is illustrated with oil paintings on canvas by wildlife artist Milena Weichelt, whose masterful work brings alive the sensations of a Christmas safari holiday in the wild landscapes of my home country, Kenya.
Rethinking The Meaning Of Christmas
This story’s writing was inspired by a similar book that we picked up in Thailand when we lived there, which highlighted some of the quintessential Thai scents, scenes, and flavors, set to the same tune.
The Twelve Days of Christmas Safari recreates a game drive experience, showing readers what sightings one would make on a magical tour of Kenya’s game parks. Every page is intended to steer children away from only expecting presents on Christmas Day and to anticipate and appreciate the gift of nature and all the animals that live on our shared planet.
This safari edition is both an adventure story and an environmental awareness lesson intended to inspire readers of all ages to rethink the meaning of Christmas.
What are your multicultural family’s Christmas traditions?
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Latest posts by Wakanyi Hoffman (see all)
- A Multicultural Family’s Christmas Traditions - December 14, 2020
- The Power of Sharing Indigenous Knowledge Through Folk Tales - November 15, 2019
- Fun Facts About Groningen, a Province in the Northern Netherlands - October 18, 2019