Portable Expatriate Holiday Traditions

Every expatriate family needs portable holiday traditions to help us rejoice.

Real Christmas trees aren’t common in the desert of the Horn of Africa and fake ones weren’t a priority for our initial luggage allotment. Eventually when a relative visited, they filled a duffle bag with a small fake Christmas tree. We have three nativity sets – one is a Fisher Price Little People set, one is a set of hand painted wooden blocks made by a family friend and one is a glass set so small that all the pieces fit in the palm of my hand. We have a snowman with 25 drawers that my mom sent. I put clues in the drawers and every morning the kids read the clue and search the house for a piece of candy or a small coin. We have cookie cutters and sometimes we have Christmas-colored sprinkles.

And that’s about it. Oh, and strings of Christmas lights, iTunes music, and a couple of DVDs including an old, taped from TV version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The best part, hands-down, is the commercials from the early 90’s.

But my favorite, absolute favorite Christmas tradition is not the decorations or the cookies or the music or even the fabulous meal we make on Christmas day.

Nope, my favorite Christmas tradition is something that we can bring with us anywhere we go. It doesn’t require packing or planning or cooking. All we need is our family. Five Joneses. They can be in Djibouti or Kenya or Minneapolis or Florida or on the moon. We could probably even make it work if we were in transit, stuck in some airport or airplane, though people might think we were nuts. That’s okay, we probably are, at least a little.

We wrestle.

Some families read the Nativity story, some sing Christmas carols, some have special routines around the unwrapping of gifts. We do read the Nativity story and we spend all December belting out Christmas carols Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and anything from either the Beach Boys or New Kids on the Block Christmas compilations.

But on Christmas morning, before opening gifts, we wrestle.

All out, all family members included no matter their age or desire to participate. The first year the family wrestled, my husband (a wrestler) had little difficulty pinning his wife and infant twins. Two of the three of us were already on their backs when the match began. The battle has gotten increasingly more difficult, loud, violent, and sweaty as the kids have grown.

The battle always ends in tears. Early on it was because we scared the children. I screamed, Tom picked me up and threw me (gently) down. Later on it was because of frustration, rug burns, or the crushing disappointment that yet again, Daddy had won.

The winner gets the honor of hoisting The Belt and scribbling their name on the back of The Belt and taking a photo with The Belt. This is the only piece of our tradition that could be packed but we could, and have, wrestled without it.

The Belt was a wedding gift, yes I said wedding gift, and is a life-size foam replica of a WWF championship belt with a golden sticker glued on.

The winner does not have to be a single person. Should the four of us weaker members decide to gang up on dad, we could share the glory. We have tried this in the past and as the kids get bigger and the dad gets older, the chances are beginning to tip in our favor.

Should you be traveling and see a family of 5 rolling around and screaming on Christmas day, that might be us. We’re rejoicing. It sounds like screaming, looks like pain. We are together, we’re celebrating Christmas, we’re rejoicing.

Every expatriate family needs portable Christmas traditions. What’s yours?

Photo Credit : Gratisography


  1. Annalisa December 7, 2014

    Haha!  That’s a great story and a great tradition.  (I don’t think I’ll implement it in my “someday family”–as the fiance thinks he’s going to hurt me every time I throw down–but I enjoyed reading about it.)

    As we work on mixing two cultures and two lives to create what we’ll someday call our life–which includes holiday traditions–we’ve come upon some things that we do like.  My fiance, at 29 years of age, decorated his first Christmas tree this year.  I have a tiny one–about a foot and a half tall–that I bought down here with a short strand of silver garland, 2 dozen small blue bulbs, a string of lights which only work right if you tap the wire a certain way, 2 hand-crocheted snowflakes and 1 hand-crocheted angel sent to me by a member of my sending church, a teddy bear “ornament” which I think is supposed to be a cell phone dangle from a exchange student my parents had from Korea, and of course a star…which doesn’t quite stay on the tree and must be “tied” on with the string of lights.  Decorating the tree made him cry (and he hates crying) and said “We have to do this every year.”  Okay…tree, check.

    1. Rachel Pieh Jones December 8, 2014

      Yay for setting up the tree, that’s a really sweet story. There have been some bumps and bruises in these wrestling matches but mainly because I’m clumsy and get in someone’s way!

    2. Annalisa December 8, 2014

      Oh, and one I started last year that the fiance isn’t exactly involved in is making bread for the local police officers.  Here we have a national police force, and 99% of the time, they are not stationed in their same town (to avoid corruption, apparently).  So, since half of the force works on Christmas and the other half on New Years, I began the tradition of taking loaves of homemade bread down to the station.  (My fiance is a police officer; so I know a little bit about what it’s like to not have him around for special days.  He says that every day is a normal day, and that’s his way of coping.  I’ve been working on teaching him that every day is a special day, and he’s getting it. 😀 )

      1. Rachel Pieh Jones December 9, 2014

        This is so beautiful. I love it. And I’m sure they do, too. Especially the giving aspect

  2. Patty Stallings December 7, 2014

    I love it, Rachel!  Our first Christmas in China we were all sick with the flu.  Thankfully, that didn’t catch on as a tradition.  But the second year, we made tacos because we were able to find cheese and made salsa and tortillas from scratch.   Then after 5 Christmases in China, we spent a Christmas in America with my family and had a traditional Christmas dinner with all the fixin’s.  I thought it was wonderful!  Our kids lamented, “Where are the tacos?”   From then on, wherever we are in the world, Christmas includes tacos.  (Tacos with Chinese characteristics, of course.)

  3. Elizabeth December 8, 2014

    This story is hilarious! I laughed hard. My family, too, is a wrestling family, and wrestling matches sometimes end in tears, but a big difference between my family and yours is that Mommy does NOT participate. Mommy gets so stressed out that she leaves the room 🙂

    I actually love Christmas overseas more than in America. Now, I LOVE being with family on Christmas, and my memories of Christmas growing up all revolve around music, food and yummy smells, and aunts, uncles, and cousins galore, and I hate that my kids are missing grandparents. But it seems to me that presents and shopping have taken Christmas hostage in America. I’m not even a good gift giver (not my love language) so the pressure at Christmas time can really get to be a lot for me. And of course, everyone in my circles already has everything we/they need, so over-the-top Christmas spending can seem a bit ridiculous. Sometimes I wish we could all just rebel and go gift-less at Christmas. . .

    I love how Christmas overseas allows us to be just the 6 of us Trotters, as you say here about the 5 of you Joneses. My husband and I really cherish these simpler times. Most of all, I love how being overseas allows me to focus more on the season of Advent. And the meaning of Christmas has really been getting inside my heart this year, more than ever before.

    1. Rachel Pieh Jones December 9, 2014

      So glad you said this about the time being focused on just your family. I miss my relatives but there is something sweet about being together too, and not having all the ‘stuff’ and parties going on all around us. Glad to hear you are a wrestling family too! My participation is pretty much a joke.

  4. MaDonna December 8, 2014

    Too funny…the picture in my head of a western family wrestling at the airport. I’m not laughing at the scene you’d be making, but at the strangers that stop to watch, to stare – some with mouths open, and since I live in Asia probably cameras or phones out taking snapshots and videos of the whole affair. THAT would be fun to watch.

    1. Rachel Pieh Jones December 9, 2014

      That would be funny. Probably, in all honesty, these days we’d get in trouble or something at an airport!

  5. Hallie December 9, 2014

    We have a fabric advent calendar made out of felt! It rolls easily, and fits into any bag, and goes with us to any country… and no matter where we are, I make cinnamon rolls. And here in China, we have a Fireplace DVD we play on our TV! It sounds stupid, but our kids love it, year after year 🙂

  6. Brittany December 9, 2014

    I love it!  My husband and I have never had our own Christmas, and certainly are still trying to figure out traditions. This is our 7th Christmas, ha!  But this is our first year to be alone.  No family, we’re still in a new place, so not a lot of friends.  I have no idea what we’ll figure out as a Christmas tradition considering we do things differently every year.  I feel kind of stressed about it because our kids are 3 and 2 and so they are getting old enough to really participate and make Christmas memories.  Maybe our Christmas tradition will be to do things different every year

    1. Will March 6, 2015

      I’m greatful you made the post. It’s cleared the air for me.

  7. Grace L December 9, 2014

    For me, it’s making Christmas cookies. As a child I learned to make frosted Christmas cookies at a neighbor’s house and I continued the tradition as an adult with my son and many of his friends. It would be a wild day with hundreds of rolled sugar cookies sitting on the table waiting to be frosted and decorated.

    When we came to China, I brought along my Christmas cookie cutters. We have a small factory in our house with 8 women working for us. They are like family to us, so naturally I just had to get them involved in making Christmas cookies. They love it. We give them the afternoon off and fill our kitchen with great smells and yummy cookies, many of which get eaten in the process of decorating them.

    Five years ago I broke my arm right before Christmas and I was just not able to any decorating. That was the start of getting our ladies involved in decorating our little artificial Christmas tree and even making decorations for it. They got so imaginative and so very untraditional and soon these decorations were being strung from one side of the room to the other. It jarred my sense of what a house should look like when decorated for Christmas, but they loved the fun of doing it.

  8. Raquel December 9, 2014

    So funny!

    My strange Christmas family tradition is to watch Lord of the Rings… all day… because nothing says Merry Christmas like hours of battles of middle earth right??

    I guess it started when I got the first movie as a gift for Christmas. Then it grew as the entire set came out… & now it’s growing more since the last Hobbit comes out this year. Somehow it stuck & became a weird tradition. Probably because it’s the only time in the year that my entire family is home at the same time with nothing to do & can have real rest after a year of so so so much work. So the ridiculously long movies play, all day, & we watch some, sleep through a lot of it, cook & play while it’s still going on the tv.

    So my first Christmas overseas, I told my teammates our funny tradition & they loved it, so we added their family tradition of getting new festive pjs on Christmas Eve & made our own mixture of the 2. New pjs, cookies, coffee, & the ultimate Lord of the Rings marathon! 🙂

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