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Monday, January 23rd, 2012

The Holidays in Multicultural Families

Holidays in multicultural families/ © dream79 -

Nearly one year ago, for the first time in my life, I was responsible for Christmas.

Well, I didn’t suddenly turn into Father Christmas, of course, but it felt like I was anyway.

Expat Holidays

Like a lot of expats, we spend most of our travel budget on visiting family. The two yearly trips to my mum around Christmas and my in-laws in summer are usually all we do.

I have also lived at least 800 km (ok, 500 miles) away from my parents since 1990 and so I usually went home in late December. Even when I met my wife, I still went home, mostly because she doesn’t really do Christmas and so we naturally went to Germany every year.

Our third daughter was born in November 2010 and we felt it was too much for us to travel with her so early in her life. (I guess we didn’t want to repeat the early years of our oldest daughter, who on her second birthday, had over 30 flights under her belt.)

So we had our first ever family Christmas at home in 2010, and because it falls under my share of our cultural melting pot, I was obviously responsible for the lot. Oh boy.


I will not bore you with details of how hard it is to find candle holders in the U.K. so you can put proper candles onto your Christmas tree, something we Germans stubbornly do in spite of the alleged fire hazard. (Whatever, a Christmas tree looks so much better with real candles! We like to do things properly, you know.)

When the few candles we had (we got them secondhand via the Internet, from an elderly lady who had put them away ages ago) had burned down, my wife convinced me to put electrical candles up instead. I have to admit, it wasn’t that bad. Times are a-changing, I guess.

I wanted Christmas to feel like I was used to, but the main thing was that I wanted the girls to enjoy it. I wanted to provide a festive atmosphere, which meant of course creating it.

Grown-up Christmas

Interestingly enough, I discovered in the process that creating that festive atmosphere makes it harder for you to feel it yourself! Like the host of a party, I was thinking about the details while the girls were able to just go with it, almost as if it was some miraculous happening.

All of a sudden, I could understand all those things people say: “It’s hard to get into the spirit” and “I’m busy preparing, I don’t have time to feel Christmasy” to name the most common. I am 42 years old and you might wonder how on earth I didn’t notice before. As I said: it was my first ever Christmas away from my parents.

So the main focus for me last year wasn’t actually to have a Christmas as I remember it but to provide it. Totally different.

“How is all of this relevant on this blog?” You ask. Well…

All parents do things with their kids based on what they have known and learned throughout their lives. Their own parents gave them some of it, but a lot came from the culture in which they were immersed.

More often than not couples are from similar backgrounds and master the main events together easily. Not so in mixed-culture couples: my wife had never celebrated Christmas before she met me! Because we are a multicultural family, I am responsible for big parts of our children’s cultural background. That’s almost frightening, isn’t it?!

Mixing Cultures

In our little family, we are celebrating a bunch of different events: my wife brought Ramadan, Eid ul-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. I brought Christmas (the German way, which includes a couple of things I am currently not doing, like Advent and Nikolaus), New Year and Easter. The U.K., our home, contributes bank holidays and events we both didn’t know about, like Guy Fawkes Day and of course the Queen’s birthday.

We each try to make events feel as authentic as possible. School, preschool and the environment provide the U.K. bits. This is one aspect of being a multicultural couple that I have not read a lot about so far (apart from Americans all over the world writing about how hard it is to get a good turkey for Thanksgiving).

I don’t know whether we are still a very rare exception or whether other couples like us do not write about it. I am sure there are couples who decide to blend in with their environment and forget about their individual cultural background. It is a lot easier that way.

For me, culture is part of who I am and just like I never wondered what language to speak with my daughters (German, in case you were wondering) I don’t have to think about whether I want my girls to experience Christmas, because of course I do!

With so many different things to celebrate, am I afraid mine might not get enough attention?

Actually, I am.

I am worried that on my own, I will not be able to create the same kind of atmosphere that I remember fondly. I feel that I could or should do more for my girls or they will miss out on an important part of my cultural heritage.

Then again maybe they won’t. It is my heritage–they cannot exactly relive that. My heritage is sort of irrelevant in our situation because with our mix of cultures, they will have something totally unique. Maybe that is more interesting and more important?

I just hope they will have fond memories of all parts of their culture when they’re grown up.
And I am quite glad that for 2011, we resumed normal operations and flew to Germany to have Christmas with my family.

© 2012, Jan Petersen. All rights reserved.

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Jan, who is German, works mainly from home as a software engineer. His wife, who is Algerian, stays at home to look after their three girls aged 7, 4 and 1. They live in the U.K. and are raising their children multilingual in Arabic, French, German and English.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsJustine Ickes   |  Tuesday, 24 January 2012 at 10:19 pm

    Great piece, Jan. I totally relate to what you say about feeling the pressure of being in a bi-cultural family, especially when it comes to holidays. You wrote – “Because we are a multicultural family, I am responsible for big parts of our children’s cultural background. That’s almost frightening, isn’t it?!” As the mother of Turkish-American kids (we live in the U.S.) I think about this quite a lot, particularly, what it means to be cultural literate in a given culture. And I too sometimes feel uncomfortable with being the font of cultural “wisdom” (not the best word, but I trust you’ll understand what I mean) for my kids when it comes to the U.S. I’ve written about this on my blog. Sometimes it goes smoothly, other times, not so much. Like when my kids’ lost their first teeth and I had to give my Turkish husband a quick tutorial about the tooth fairy. :-)

  2. CommentsLara Browning-Kamins   |  Thursday, 03 October 2013 at 10:51 am

    Dear Mr. Peterson,

    I greatly enjoyed your piece, especially as I am looking forward to holidays in what will become a multicultural family once I marry my partner and we start a family (he is Cuban, I am American). I also love your accompanying photo of the gift-wrapped globe in the hand. I am a librarian at the Central Arkansas Library System Main Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I am currently planning on putting on a multicultural holiday event in December. I intend on inviting members of the Little Rock community from all backgrounds to come in for a day of food and a day of crafts to celebrate cultures both near and far, and I am looking into designing my promotional material. I was wondering if I might have permission to use your photo for the promotions for this event? As we are a public library, all our programs are free of charge and open to all, so this photo would be featured on our advertisments for this non-profit event. Please feel free to contact me at the above email, and I look forward to hearing from you and reading more words of experience in a multcultural, multi-lingual family!

    Thank you,

    Lara Browning-Kamins

  3. CommentsThe Editors   |  Thursday, 03 October 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Hi Lara- Glad you enjoyd the article! This was a stock photo that we purchased through fotolia so unfortunately we don’t own the rights to it. You can purchase it through fotolia for $1-$2 though! Good luck with your event- sounds wonderful!

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