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Blending Multicultural and Multilingual European Holiday Traditions: A Guide
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Christmas is coming, and every year my husband and I have the same discussion: How will we combine the many traditions and celebrations we both know and cherish?

My husband comes from the German-speaking part of Switzerland. My heritage is German and Italian. I grew up and lived in Italy, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands. As a result, I ended up carrying cultures and traditions from five different countries!

And then, we must also accommodate the expectations and wishes of our three multicultural children. Our son was born in Florence, Italy, and our two daughters in Delft, the Netherlands.

Combining Multiple Traditions

Even if all “our” countries are European and of Christian tradition, they have different celebrations around Christmas time and if we celebrate them all, we would be busy from the 11th of November until the 6th of January!

The way we combine holidays in our family has changed over the years – when our children were younger, we chose to focus on the traditions their friends at daycare and school celebrated, because we didn’t want them to feel too different. Now with our three children, all having grown up in international environments, we work together to preserve and transmit all our traditions by following the rules below.







The “Three Ts Rule”: A guide to multicultural celebrations

Our “Three Ts Rule” stands for Things, Tastes, and Tunes.

1. Things

Photo Courtesy: Ute Limacher-Riebold

For every tradition we choose one thing, one object, that helps us think about what that tradition symbolizes.

The German Advendskalender (Advent calendar – a countdown to Christmas) helps us manage our expectations that lead toward Christmas. From December 1st to December 24th, the kids get little presents. Ours is a handmade calendar made by my Swiss mother-in-law, that we fill with sweets or small surprises (a Dutch tradition).

We light one candle for each of the four Sundays leading to Christmas on our German Christmas wreath or Adventskranz. With our Italian presepe, we set up the nativity scene. We occasionally follow the Dutch tradition of schoenen zetten (putting out the shoes so that they are filled with presents) between the arrival of Sinterklaas (the Dutch version of St Nicholas), which takes place at the end of November, and pakjesavond (when Sinterklaas actually delivers sweets or coal to the children) on the eve of the 5th December.

Nowadays, our children don’t expect their shoes to be filled with sweets anymore, but they are happy with some written messages from us and little practical gifts like pens and pencils.

 




 

Decorating our Christmas tree is also part of our tradition. Many years ago, we chose an artificial one. Aside from ecological considerations, the main reason to go for an artificial tree was that we needed one to carry with us wherever we spent Christmas. We happened to stay in hotels for some years and decorating our “Max” (yes, we even gave it a name!) was one of the activities that would put us all in the right Christmas mood.

2. Tastes

Photo Courtesy: Ute Limacher-Riebold

 

What we associate with this festive season are not only the celebrations, but also smells and tastes.

For our family, dishes on the menu during these festive weeks come from Germany, with Weihnachtsplätzchen, Lebkuchen, Stollen, Dreikönigskuchen (or its French equivalent, the galette des rois); from Italy with panettone, pandoro, and dates; from the UK with the Christmas log; from France with raclette; from Switzerland with Grittibänz and fondue; and of course the Netherlands, where we now live, with gourmetten. All these dishes have a special meaning to us.

Weihnachtsplätzchen, Lebkuchen, Stollen, Dreikönigskuchen, Panettone, Pandoro, Christmas log, Raclette, Grittibänz and fondue, Gourmetten. #Christmas #HappyHolidays Click To Tweet

The traditional Swiss Grittibänz, which is sweet dough in the shape of a man, was introduced to me by some Swissgerman friends during the first winter I spent in Switzerland as a student.

The smell of the freshly baked Lebkuchen (a Greman Christmas biscuit made with honey ) and Weihnachtsplätzchen (traditional German cookies) remind me of my childhood, as well as the Italian panettone (sweet bread with raisins and other dried fruits) and pandoro (sweet bread).




I like to add some homemade chocolate cream to the plain pandoro following the recipe of our neighbour in Italy where I grew up. She showed it to me when I was 12 years old and I tend to prepare this special chocolate cream every year in memory of these days.

Chocolate is something we associate with Christmas, as my husband made chocolate truffes the first Christmas we spent together. And nowadays, my children make a special Christmaslog filled with chocolate cream.

During this time of the year, after school and work, we all love connecting over a cup of cinnamon tea that we take with the baked goods we make, like Weihnachtsplätzchen,  or a slice of Christmaslog, or pandoro.

As for the meals, when we celebrate Christmas at our place, we prefer making fondue or gourmetten, the Dutch way. We are vegetarian and part of our family is vegan, therefore we don’t opt for the most traditional meals, but found our own ones that make it easier to accommodate everyone.

3. Tunes

All these elements of different cultures are associated with the respective languages. The tunes, the carols merge in a sort of multilingual code-switching and accompany us throughout our very personal festive season where we listen to music in all the languages we know.

When I was six years old, I started learning French at school in Italy, and so I got to learn and sing French Christmas songs. One of my favourite is called Noël C’est l’Amour (Christmas is Love). The song is about how Christmas time is a time for love, and more specifically the love of a mother for her child. This song remains special to me to this day, and I love singing it with my children. It brings back memories of the childhood years.




I remember singing Süßer die Glocken nie klingen with my German grandparents when we visited them during Christmas time. They lived in West Germany near Fulda, and we would visit them twice a year from Italy. This song is about the Christmas bells, which announce Christmas and the birth of Jesus.

We would sing this song – and many others – before opening the presents. But this song is very dear to me because it was the first one we sang after my grandparents rang a bell, which was the signal to start singing our Christmas songs. I still use a bell today when we sing songs at Christmas eve, and we sing this song first, like when I was a child.

In Italy, the song Tu scendi dalle stelle (You Come Down From The Stars) is widely sung during Christmas time.

Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli sings it in a beautiful rendition. This song and the smell of frankincense in church reminds me of my Italian roots.

My husband being from the German-speaking part of Switzerland, we also sing Es schneielet ganz fyn und lys, a song in Schwizertüütsch (Swissgerman) which is about the gentle snow falling. It was the first Swissgerman winter song my son learnt when we were still living in Italy.

When our family moved to the Netherlands in 2005, we embraced Sinterklaas, the local version of my German St Nikolaus, and all the associated traditions. This is how my son and I learnt Sinterklaas Kapoentje and Sinterklaas is jarig, two traditional songs that children sing to celebrate Sinterklaas.




My son was almost 3 and I remember that when I once picked him up from daycare he sang a series of songs that he was taught that week. I didn’t know the words so I asked the leidsters (leaders/teachers) if they could give me a hint. They kindly printed out the words of all the songs they were singing with the children for me.

We can learn a lot about a culture through the way traditions are celebrated and through the typical songs. Click To Tweet

The Dutch way to celebrate Sinterklaas is quite different from Germany, Switzerland and Austria. We can learn a lot about a culture through the way traditions are celebrated and through the typical songs. That is why it was very important for me to learn these songs. I felt I would understand the local culture better. It wasn’t difficult to learn them, as people would play them on the radio in every shop and supermarket in the Netherlands, starting from the end of November. With the help of the printouts from the leidsters and my son, it took us only a few weeks to learn them.

Feliz Navidad is half Spanish and half English and reflects the polylinguistic reality of our household. Click To Tweet

Nowadays, as our children and I are learning Spanish, we chose to add Feliz Navidad to our repertoire this year. This song is half Spanish and half English and reflects the polylinguistic reality of our household. If only there was a song in German, Italian, French, Swissgerman, Dutch, English and Spanish! It would be perfect. I have always made sure that the books we read and the songs we sing in our family are international. There is no boundary and no preference for one or another language.

Our family has a special preference for the Christmas songs by Pentatonix especially the Little Drummer Boy, and during our long rides to the different places we call home, Chris Rea’s Driving home for Christmas is a must. I listened to it when driving home to my parents when I was a student, and now, my children like to listen to it when we drive to their grandparents and aunts.

I know it’s still a few more days until Christmas, but I’d like to wish you all a besinnliche Weihnachtszeitun buon Nataleun joyeux Noëlen gueti Wienachtsziit, Merry Christmas, Feliz NavidadBoas Festas and een vrolijk Kerstfeest!


 Ute Limacher-Riebold is a multilingual language consultant and an intercultural communication consultant and trainer for internationals. She holds a PhD in Philology and was Lecturer in linguistics and literature for a decade, before reinventing herself after several international moves. With Ute’s International Lounge, she encourages international families to embrace all stages of their life abroad. Ute has lived and worked in Italy, Switzerland, France and now lives in the Netherlands with her Swiss husband, three multilingual and crosscultural children and dog. She is fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swissgerman.

Ute blogs at Expat-Since-Birth and Expat living in The Hague . Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

 




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