There’s nothing quite like the holidays abroad! No matter what you celebrate, spending four months somewhere means you’ll likely be missing at least one holiday at home. For me, the biggest celebrations are Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Of course, different religions and cultures have holidays at different points. Whether you celebrate the same as me or different, it’s important to understand your host country’s own traditions to better engage with the culture while still creating space to celebrate in whichever way you do!
No matter how you celebrate, or what you celebrate, making a home for yourself in a new country’s culture to practice your own traditions can be an alarming change. I found that what put me in the holiday spirit was the little ways I could celebrate with my friends. Having a community who understands the challenge of being away from home during the holidays brought us closer. I realized how valuable it was to my mental health to be surrounded by people who could relate to what I was going through. It made the experience more enjoyable and less lonely.
I’m here to share my own experiences and observations after living in Amsterdam through the fall semester, missing some of the biggest holidays for my family.
Surprisingly, Halloween isn’t huge for the Dutch! As a college student used to the typical “Halloweekend” experience, I was expecting to bring the same energy. It was an era in the lockdown where there wasn’t much locked down. The clubs opened, I was with friends, and outfit shopping was a success. We managed to get lucky with a special ticket to hop around some of the busy areas, so we got to see other people dressed up in costumes. But when you mention Halloween to a Dutch person, the response is always the same. “We don’t really celebrate that.”
Instead, they have St. Maartin’s Day on November 11th, apparently also referred to as “Old Halloween” in some places. There are many parts to this holiday, but it’s typical for children to go around reciting poetry and singing for candy. A less commercialized Halloween, if you will.
Sadly I didn’t see much happening around this holiday. Probably due to the lack of social distancing and large gatherings it promotes.
Overall, Halloween was less of a culture shock because Amsterdam still catered to celebrating on October 31st. At least one thing hasn’t changed; I still suck at carving pumpkins.
Having missed Thanksgiving with my family for the past four years, I wasn’t shocked to be missing it again this year. Although, the circumstances have changed from spending the holiday with friends to living abroad in a country where it doesn’t exist. So, not much of a comparison to be made in that respect. It’s more about how to cope with the holidays in your own way.
Given the history of Thanksgiving is not worth celebrating, what matters more to me is using the time to surround myself with friends and express gratitude to myself and others. My friends and I found a way to be cheery by spending time together in the kitchen. Sadly, I missed the other potluck dinner. But since the holiday is a time where I invest in self-reflection, I still found a way to celebrate in a more personal manner.
Perhaps the biggest shock was the schedule change. In the U.S., I get at least a week off for Thanksgiving before we return for three weeks leading up to Christmas. Obviously here I got no time off, which I’m not complaining about. Rather, it’s a side effect of not celebrating the holiday here.
Christmas was the biggest switch up and I’ll tell you why. I’ve always thought of Christmas as technically one day. Christmas eve my family celebrates with dinner at my great grandmas, but Christmas is Christmas and I’ve never thought of it as a two day celebration before. But Christmas in the Netherlands is distinctly two days. Christmas eve isn’t really celebrated. But the 25th and 26th of December are Christmas one and Christmas two respectively. My boyfriend explained to me that his mother’s birthday was on the third day of Christmas, which in my head means the 26th. Christmas eve, Christmas, and then day three, the 26th. I blame his unclear explanation for the five minute confusing tiff we got in over what date corresponded to what day of Christmas. And that’s the easiest part to understand.
In the U.S. Santa is indistinguishable from Christmas. Well, in the Netherlands, Santa is called sinterklaas and is divorced from Christmas. Instead, on December fifth sinterklaas visits children and brings gifts and candies. So Christmas, that is December 25th, is not primarily about gifts the way it is in America. I was told that it’s common to still give gifts, but usually one or two only to close family members. Whereas in America I hand make gifts for all my friends and give presents to cousins and beyond. It became increasingly more obvious to me just how commercialized America makes Christmas. It becomes something based in materialism to the point that Christmas is qualified by the number of gifts you have stuffed under and around the tree. Here Christmas seems more quaint, with tasteful decorations and beautifully strung up lights on literally every street. It’s almost void of the over-the-top Americanized decorations with blow up santas and more. Here the decorations are enchanting in their simplicity.
I spent the holidays with my boyfriend and his family. His parents cooked incredible meals for us the whole weekend. I come from rural Wisconsin, so our staples are corn and bread, sometimes lutefisk (I don’t eat that), and ham. Our fun family treats are my great grandma’s special red and green jello, and of course all the Christmas cookie trays from friends and family. Pretty sure there is usually pecan pie as well. Needless to say, we’re overloaded with food and sweets.
My meals here were collections of samplers. Beautifully arranged trays of meats, crackers, spreads, and veggies. On Christmas I tried duck for the first time, which is huge for me because I usually only eat chicken and turkey in general. His parents switched off making the most delectable desserts. On Christmas eve we had homemade creme brulee. And the next night we ended with homemade tiramisu. Both incredibly flavorful.
I spent the evening listening to and watching the top 2000 hits countdown, which apparently is another staple of the holiday season for the Dutch. Usually you can go in person to the cafe where the countdown is hosted, but this year it was remote. A new scene with covid restrictions for sure, but listening to old tunes and not the same five Christmas songs on repeat was a delightful switch up!
Perhaps my favorite experience was when I was taken out of that environment and placed into a new one. I expected to feel out of place, sad, and homesick for Christmas. But spending it with a loving family who accepted me brought me great joy and a sense of wonderment.
Although the program has ended, I’m about to spend one more holiday in Amsterdam: New Years! I’m writing this the morning of the 31st waiting for my boyfriend to come spend yet another major holiday with me. It’s so special to be entering a new year beginning in a place that feels like home. Starting the new year abroad already makes this the most exciting way I’ve ever celebrated. So cheers to the start of a new year, new adventures, new friendships, and a new home.
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<p>Hi there! I’m Cali Carper, a small-town Wisconsin girl who enjoys her book collection, dance, fashion, thrifting, knitting, and thinking critically. Currently, I’m a fifth-year student at Penn State studying Criminology and Comparative Literature with minors in Korean, Asian Studies, Sociology, Global Studies, and English. When I was a first-year student, I spent a summer abroad at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. In my last year, I’ll be traversing Europe for a semester during my study abroad trip to Amsterdam, where I’ll participate in the Law & Criminology program at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam!</p>