When you and your partner have two different Christmas cultures, how do you combine them? Follow these tips to find the right Christmas traditions for your family.
Parenting,  Bilinguals kids

Combining Christmas cultures and traditions

Raising a child to be truly multilingual also requires that you impart an understanding of the culture in which that language is based. For many, this means showing your child or children the family and local traditions and celebrations that are important. Thanksgiving in Canada and the USA. Cinco de Mayo in Mexico. St Martins in our area of Germany. Christmas. But what do you do when your Christmas traditions are different and how do you go about combining Christmas cultures?

Our Christmas differences

As many of you know, I am Australian and Peter is German. We want Miss M to celebrate Christmas in both cultures and to want to celebrate both when she is over.

There are a few fundamental differences.

Weather

Christmas in Germany means Christmas markets, Glühwein and Kinderglühwein, Christmas baking, warm gloves and snow if we are lucky. Gifts often include warm clothing, games to be played inside where it is warm and dry, or things to be used skiing or tobogganing.

Christmas in Australia means Summer. It is at the start of the school summer holidays so there are always end of year and end of school year celebrations.

Australia does not have a big Christmas market tradition. Part of this is the heat – who wants to drink Glühwein when it is 36°c or warmer? South Australia does have a long tradition (not as long as the Christmas market tradition in Germany) of holding a Christmas Pageant that brings Father Christmas to town.

Temperatures will exceed 40°c a few days next week. Predictably, gifts often include beach towels, bathers, snorkels, backyard cricket sets, school bags and supplies for the new school year, and vouchers for indoor, air-conditioned activities. Many families even spend part of Christmas Day on the beach.

In Australia, Christmas is in the middle of Summer. This affects the food, the gifts, where you are likely to spend Christmas Day and even whether Father Christmas still has reindeer. The weather affects holiday traditions and can influence your choices when combining Christmas cultures.

Food

The food is a direct reflection of both culture and the temperature.

In Germany, we have been feasting on Christmas biscuits since St Martins Day. We have had Glühwein and Reibekuchen at Christmas markets, enjoying the cool, crisp weather.

On Christmas Eve, Peter’s family will get together for Raclette, a warm dish involving lots of cheese. There is little to prepare so that my Mother-in-Law does not have to spend hours in the kitchen.

What is raclette? Raclette is a semi-hard, Swiss cheese of cow milk that is great for melting. The dish involves an electric table-top grill. Each person has a little pan to mix their preferences – potatoes, charcuterie and vegetables like corn, asparagus and champignons. A piece of raclette cheese is placed on top and melted under the grill. Yum!

In contrast, in Australia our meal is based on a traditional English Christmas dinner, weather permitting. My family eats fresh berries for breakfast with a glass of champagne. Christmas dinner follows with roast turkey and roast vegetables, a cold leg of ham and Christmas pudding for dessert. Each year, we discuss how many vegetables are needed, how long the turkey needs to cook and whether we might want or need to change the menu, rather than heat up the house with long oven use or risk starting a fire with the Weber grill.

Raclette is the preferred Christmas Eve meal in my husband's family.

Timing

In Germany, the Christmas presents are delivered and opened on Christmas Eve.

In Australia, at least in our family, the presented are delivered on Christmas Eve, but are not opened until the morning of the 25th.

The gift bringer

In Germany, the gift giving starts on 1st December with the advent calendar. These count down the days until Christmas Eve (not Christmas Day). Some contain chocolates or are pre-filled. I make one for Miss M with a small gift for each day.

St Nicholas brings gifts on 6th of December in the form of oranges, nuts, some sweets and sometimes a small gift and leaves them in the shoes or boots. In our family, St Nicholas also brings a book and Winter pyjamas.

That brings us to Christmas Eve. After consuming too much cheese, the family goes for a walk or just relaxes for a bit until we hear a bell ring. This indicates that the Christkind, or Christ Child, has been and brought the presents.

During the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestants invented the idea that the ‘Christkind’ delivers the gifts on Christmas Eve. In an effort to take the focus off of St Nicholas, a Catholic saint, Martin Luther invented a new celebratory figure for Protestants.

Unlike Santa Claus, the Christkind does not live at the North Pole and does not have elves producing gifts or reindeer pulling a sleigh. You can, however, write the Christkind a letter with your Christmas wish list.

In Australia, Advent calendars are becoming increasingly popular. However, they are far from a fixed feature of the pre-Christmas calendar. St Nicholas does not visit. Instead, most Australian families leave milk or beer and biscuits out for Father Christmas and carrots for the reindeer on Christmas Eve.

How do you combine Christmas cultures when in Germany, the Christkind brings the gifts on Christmas Eve? Christkind at the Nuremberg Christkindlmarkt, photo: christkindlesmarkt.de

Combining Christmas cultures

Many newlyweds have to navigate combining family Christmas traditions in their first few years of marriage. Working out where to spend Christmas, what foods will be served, who is invited… first Christmases and other holidays can cause quite a bit of stress for newlyweds.

This can be even more difficult when it is not just combining family traditions, but combining different Christmas cultures.

I do not profess any expertise at combining holiday traditions, especially when those traditions involve significant differences or even religious differences. I can tell you what has worked for us.

As you can see, our cultural differences are minor. We can solve most simply by alternating where we celebrate Christmas. In fact, this was the easy solution for many years. It has only really been this year that we have had to think more about our approach.

Why is a clear common approach necessary this year?

Miss M is at an age where she is more invested in Christmas. It is not just the presents. She wants to help bake Christmas biscuits, make presents for her Grandparents, help with the Christmas wrapping, help decorate the house and go to the Christmas markets.

She is also more discerning when it comes to who brings the presents and when.

This was evident when she came home from kindergarten to tell us that the carers were ‘swindling’ them out of presents.

American cartoons have exposed many of Miss M’s classmates to an American view of Christmas, with Santa Claus (who becomes the “Weihnachtsmann” or “Christmas Man” in German) delivering gifts on Christmas Eve. Miss M’s exposure is naturally more concrete and related to her Australian heritage.

Miss M goes to a Protestant kindergarten and the staff have been very consistent with their version of Christmas, which unfortunately does not gel with ours. When the children started asking about the Weihnachtsmann, the kindergarten staff explained that Santa Claus did not exist. You can understand Miss M’s conviction that they were lying – and my concern that a unilateral view of Christmas and Christmas cultures was being imposed on our bilingual child.

Luckily, we had explained about Father Christmas prior to this discussion at kindergarten.

Combining Christmas cultures: What do you do when both cultures don't have Father Christmas, at least not on Christmas Eve?

How we have combined our Christmas cultures

We have tried to find an approach to combining our Christmas cultures that is most consistent with Miss M’s entire Christmas experience, including spending every other Christmas in Australia.

Advent calendar

Miss M receives an advent calendar, with a small gift each day. Many of these are things that she needs anyway. This year, she received gloves and warm socks while we were still in Germany, a book, a new toothbrush and a couple of small games a few days before we left and some shower gel and a pair of flip flops when we got to Australia.

St Nicholas

St Nicholas visits as well. He brings some sweets and oranges and a book and a pair of pyjamas. This year, he bought her a backpack and sandals for her trip to Australia, too. To ensure that she didn’t expect as much next year, we explained that St Nicholas has spoken to Father Christmas and they had agreed that she could have some things early because she would need them for her trip.

In fact, St Nicholas and Father Christmas are one and the same person. We explained that the original St Nicholas, St Nicholas of Myna was a monk and a bishop, who gave gifts to help the local children. He is celebrated in Europe on St Nicholas Day, whe he still comes and leaves presents.

When the Europeans first went to America, they took their cultures with them. St Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, became Santa Claus in America through a mispronunciation. The name Father Christmas is a literal translation of the French Père Noël.

Christmas Eve

In our version, Father Christmas (sometimes called Santa Claus) comes on Christmas Eve in Australia. This way, he does Europe on 5/6 December and the rest of the world on 24/25 December.

On Christmas Eve (when we are in Germany), Miss M opens her gifts from her (German) family. On Christmas Day, she opens her presents from her Australian family and any that may have been left by Father Christmas. This not only allows us to combine our Christmas cultures, but it also means we can spread out the gifts a little.

Other holiday traditions depend on where Miss M will be.

Tips for combining Christmas cultures

There are a few tips to make it easier to decide on how to combine Christmas cultures for your family.

Combining Christmas cultures: Tip 1 - discuss your cultures and the parts you like and don't like

1. Discuss it

As parents or newlyweds, you should discuss how to combine your Christmas cultures in advance. Talk about what aspects of Christmas you enjoyed most or would most like to pass on to your children and which bits you didn’t enjoy. This will help illustrate which aspects are most important.

Combining Christmas cultures: Tip 1 - consider external influences, such as what you child might hear from the local environment, TV, other family members, etc.

2. Consider external influences

As our experience with Miss M’s kindergarten shows, you need to take into account the influence that external factors, such as schools or friends might have. While we are in Germany, it would be difficult to celebrate Christmas without Miss M visiting on 6 December. She would be incredibly sad if she were the only child in her group not to find something in her shoes on St Nicholas Day.

Combining Christmas cultures: Tip 3 - choose the best bits. You are unlikely to go wrong if you include the best bits of both cultures.

3. Choose the best bits

Naturally, you want to pass on the best aspects of your own Christmas culture to your child. What’s stopping you? Take the best bits of both – you will find a way to make it work.

Remember when you are doing this that your Christmas traditions are just as important and your partner’s.

Remember also that you are creating a holiday tradition for your family. It does not have to be the same as any other family’s holiday tradition.

Combining Christmas cultures: Tip 4 - distinguish with locations. One natural break is to have specific rules that apply to specific locations, like St Nicholas only comes to Oma's house, Father Christmas leaves the presents at Grandma's house.

4. Distinguish with locations

One easy way to decide how certain aspects of your holidays are spent is to base them on where you will be celebrating.

When we are in Australia, Miss M receives all presents – predominantly designed for warmer weather – on 25 December. The food is also the that which is traditional for my family. St Nicholas does not come on 6 December as he is saving himself for the evening of 24 December.

St Nicholas does come when we are in Germany and Miss M receives family gifts on 24 December when we celebrate with Peter’s family and their traditional raclette. She opens the gifts from Australia on Christmas Day, around the same time that we talk to my family.

Combining Christmas cultures: Tip 5 - Inform key people of your chosen approach, so that they can give your child the same message.

5. Let key people know

Obviously, we missed a step when we failed to inform the kindergarten that we wanted Miss M to believe in Father Christmas, but that he was the same person as St Nicholas and just came on a different day in some countries.

My family and my mother-in-law are aware of the basics. As we never had St Nicholas in our family, it is not much of a difference anyway. We don’t make a big song and dance about the Christkind visiting and bringing gifts on Christmas Eve. This is easy as she is the only person under the age of 20 in the family anyway.

Combining Christmas cultures: Tip 6 - prepare your explanations, to explain why something does or does not happen or what there are the inconsistencies.

6. Prepare and coordinate explanations

If you have to make a choice between one culture or the other, such as between the Christkind or Santa Claus, and how does St Nicholas fit in, be ready with an explanation. Coordinate these with key family members so that your child receives a consistent story.

We found a combination of the truth (Dutch Sinterklaas = Santa Claus) and location were sufficient. Many of you will use location to explain why Santa Claus left the presents at a grandparent’s house instead of your own house if this is where you will be opening presents.

Good luck combining your Christms cultures

Combining Christmas cultures is not always easy, but with good communication and reflection, you can ensure that your child has the best of both cultures. Follow these tips and let them guide you as you are combining Christmas cultures for your family.

Happy Holiday sign off
Celebrating holidays in the family: How to combine Christmas cultures; with tips and real life examples to help you find the right Christmas culture and traditions for your family

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