23 December 2019

How to Survive Christmas Culture Shock

jammie dodgers

One of our teachers has been reflecting on how her experience of Christmas has evolved over the years as she’s crisscrossed through cultures. And she provides some advice on how to navigate the integration of multiple traditions.

Why Are Christmas Traditions So Important?

When I grew up, Christmas was the same every year – my Dad bought presents from the same department store in London. Because he travelled to faraway places on business, sometimes we were lucky enough to receive the latest electronic gadgets from Hong Kong as gifts, much to the envy of our friends. When we went to bed on Christmas Eve, we were told not to get up before 8am. There was turkey. And Christmas pudding. It was a very British Christmas.

Many years later, being an expat in Austria, Christmas seemed a bit hollow to me at first. Of course, there were lovely markets and plenty of snow-covered streets, but it made me realize how much national culture influences human beings in terms of traditions and customs.

“At Christmas all roads lead home.” Marjorie Holmes

Later when I had children and a family life, Christmas started to take on an eclectic mix of two cultures. It turned into a bicultural festive period.

There was an advent wreath on the table with four candles. Nikolaus would come on 6th December and the Christkind came on the 24th when we had an Austrian Christmas dinner.

Yet there were also advent calendars and stockings, and Father Christmas paid us a visit on 25th December. We left mince pies out for Santa and carrots for the reindeer.

I sometimes felt sad that my children didn’t experience a true British Christmas and sing Christmas carols at school. But I embraced the chocolate-box Alpine scenery of snowy Christmas markets with pony rides and ice-skating for the kids and Glühwein for the adults. In essence, I created our own Christmas. And it was idyllic.

Christmas is celebrated in many cultures around the world. We are all aware that Christmas is not always the happiest time for many people, including and perhaps especially expats. It can get lonely and there is pressure to make it a happy celebration for those around you, even if you don’t feel settled and miss home, friends and family.

So why can’t we all relax and let go of old Christmas traditions? Why don’t people just assimilate and adopt the traditions of the new country they reside in?

The answer here lies in how we internalise culture.

“The smells of Christmas are the smells of childhood.” – Richard Paul Evans

Culture Learned Early Goes Deep

Dictionary definition of culture: the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time.

In essence, culture comes about from a country or a place that has its own beliefs, a way of life, etc. Christmas is a large part of many cultures and we are very much influenced by how we celebrate culture as children.

According to the Dutch organizational psychologist, Geert Hofstede, our culture is learned, and it’s a significant portion of what makes us who we are. He calls it “the software of the mind” and the first 12 years of life are formative in terms of human programming.

This is why we connect to Christmas so much: it is specific to group culture with family being the most influential group.

“Culture is the software of the mind.” – Geert Hofstede

How We Get Christmas Culture Shock

The anthropologist Edward T. Hall, often referred to as the father of intercultural communication, recognised how people only started questioning their own culture when they were exposed to different cultural norms.

So it is not until we feel like a fish-out-of-water and experience different Christmas celebrations that we realize how influenced we are by our own culture and how we have an unconscious bias towards it.

Of course, some people are more willing to let go of traditions than others, but for most of us, Christmas is a cultural custom that we experience and remember from a very young age.

All cross-cultural exploration begins with the experience of being lost.” – Edward T. Hall

When living abroad you often suffer from homesickness, especially if you think you are never going to return to your homeland.

Christmas reminds you of times when you were surrounded by lots of people and suddenly you can live very far away from them.

At times like Christmas nostalgia is stoked, and so sometimes people find themselves being more traditional than they would be living in their home countries, as a way to hold on to ‘home’.

“Christmas isn’t a season, it’s a feeling.” – Edna Ferber

Tips for Enjoying Cross-Cultural Christmas

So what can we do if we live in cross-cultural relationships, bilingual families or are expats? Here are some simple solutions to make sure Christmas is diverse but inclusive:


Make sure children feel included in their local community. This may mean having your celebration on another day or taking on new traditions to make them feel they belong.

In Austria, I started baking Weihnachtskekse (Christmas cookies) so that my children felt they belonged. Back on home territory today in the UK, I continue to bake these treats and the aroma of Kokosbusserl or Vanillekipferl bring back happy memories of our Austrian days.

Expat community

Tap into the expat community to find a way of celebrating Christmas in your own way.

Finding people from a similar cultural background is a good way of settling into a new culture so that you can reminisce and celebrate your own cultural heritage together.

Create your own combination traditions

At the end of the day, each family has their own traditions when it comes to Christmas or New Year. The history of each parental figure’s family culture comes into play here. Why not have an inclusive Christmas celebration by combining different cultural traditions and cherry-picking the best bits from each?!

Embracing a number of traditions at Christmas promotes diversity and inclusion at all levels of society.

These go beyond family life and can be shared at work too. They are a great way for employees to connect across an organization.

Creating a culturally diverse holiday calendar with food, music and celebrations from around the globe can help team building and is a great gesture for employees who may be a long way from home.

Happy Holidays and Frohes Fest!


About the author:

Vanessa has been training Communication Skills in English and Intercultural Awareness for over 25 years in several countries including Austria, Switzerland, India, Russia and the UK. Now based in the UK she trains an array of clients in English, often assisting them to perfect international presentations, parliamentary speeches or negotiations in ESL. She speaks fluent German and has herself had a bash at a few languages over the years.


Need To Update Your Cultural Knowledge?

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