Barbara Berthiaume, MSW
Just thinking about the holidays can invoke memories of the smell of turkey roasting in the oven, snowflakes falling on the ground, a warm crackling fireplace, and the lively chatter of loved ones gathered together once again. If we really let ourselves go and get into this frame of mind, it is easy to develop an acute case of homesickness for things that we have left behind. Many of us tend to be more susceptible to this malady during the holidays.
Someone once said that nostalgia isn't what it used to be and I find that it certainly applies to those of us living far away from home. Some things we miss during the holidays are very real while others could be more what we wished could have been. A few years ago, while living in the tropics, I was bitten with the holiday blues bug and lamented the fact that there was no snow where we were living during the holidays. It occurred to me later that there is usually no snow back home at this time of year either. My fantasy was of White Christmas, Tiny Tim, and sleigh bells jingling in the snow. Our first Christmas in England, my children expected to see snow on Christmas morning and expressed their disappointment that the sun was shining. I had to remind them that there was no snow in Singapore where we had lived for the past 6 years. Failed expectations for the holidays had created this fantasy and was further nurtured by Christmas cards depicting snow, Frosty the Snowman types of tunes, and watching A Christmas Carol on television or video. Many of our cultural cues tell us that there should be snow at Christmas, happy loving families, camaraderie, warmth, joy to the world, and so on. Many can remember the feeling of the first Christmas when we realized that there was no Santa. When the holidays do not measure up to what we had hoped for, it can leave us with a vague feeling of something being missed.
Childhood memories of holidays can produce feelings of loss regardless of where we happen to be living. This has to do with our feeling and expectations of what we would like the holidays to represent and needs to be examined in this light. We may find that in doing so, some house-cleaning is in order to get a more realistic and aligned perspective.
In living overseas, holiday memories can become even more blurred as we do not have a sister, mother, brother, or other family member to nudge us back to earth (as only a sister, mother, or other family member can do). We may temporarily forget that while some past holidays may have been filled with chestnuts roasting on an open fire, there may also have been others when we felt the pressure from extended family members of where to spend them and with whom, the reopening of old family wounds, the mad rush to do too many things in too short a time, and if nothing else, be bombarded with a constant stream of holiday music from the day after Thanksgiving. We may have to work to remember the other side of the holidays but it is an important first step in combating the holiday blues syndrome.
For those who have just recently arrived, the holidays can catch you off guard as you may feel that you just got here. Many families report that the first Christmas was difficult because it was their first time away from the familiarity and support of family and friends. With this in mind, it is important to develop a positive plan for the holidays in order to avoid the brunt of the holiday blues.
Take some time to think about how past holidays were spent, your feeling about them, what family traditions have you kept and what new ones you have developed with your own family. Give some thought about what is important to you and your family during the holidays and what values you hold. It is necessary to clarify these images in your mind and give yourself a reality check before you begin to make proactive plans for the holidays here.
You might ask yourself what will be different here as well as what will remain constant. If you know what your goals are for the holidays, you can make substitutions for what you feel you are missing. Some families would enjoy the opportunity to share Christmas as a small family unit, some may want to experience Santa in the sun, and others may feel the need to share Christmas with a group of people. If you are in the latter category, it is important to recognize this and actively seek social arrangements. Remember that may families are in the same circumstances in being new and would welcome the chance to connect with others at this time.
Thanksgiving presents a special challenge as it is just another day here. You may find yourself breaking new ground by celebrating on a day other than Thursday or perhaps introducing this very American holiday to those not familiar with this holiday. St. Paul�s in London has a wonderful Thanksgiving service and is a memorable event.
Whatever your circumstances, the need for continuity as well as adapting to new experiences can blend together to forge special holiday traditions that you can take back home as part of your life abroad.