Holidays are where the heart is

By 2018-12-24 16:33:06

Families celebrate in unique and different ways when separated and far from home. By Abbie Pumarejo

With the holidays just around the corner, I can’t help but walk down memory lane to revisit some of my family’s previous holidays. The ones that were the most memorable tended to be the ones spent with extended family and friends at “home” – wherever in the world that may have been at the time. As expats, I think we all have had more than one holiday where we thought we had to “return home” to be with our loved ones and to continue cultural and familial traditions. This may be partially true, but living abroad gives you something else entirely; with all the new experiences, concepts, and expectations you encounter as an expat, you may actually find that you develop entirely new traditions and new ways of staying in touch with family. At least that’s how it’s been for us.

In the very beginning when our boys were both under the age of four and our third one had yet to arrive, we lived in Chihuahua, Mexico. That year – 1999 to be exact - we thought it would be fun to spend Christmas in the south of the country. We took our two little ones, hopped in the car (which I had packed with a mini Christmas tree and presents) and began the journey south. This was an admittedly ambitious undertaking as the drive from Chihuahua to Zacatecas is around 850 kilometers. But we were young and foolish.

This is the reality: we stopped overnight in Torreón, which was the halfway point on our journey. The morning after Torreón, we were maybe an hour into the drive and we got a flat. That meant finding a repair place and keeping the little ones occupied. It was all fine until the oldest screamed at the top of his lungs “Poo Poo, Mama!” in the diner where we were waiting. His bout of diarrhea continued on into Zacatecas and throughout the next day. By Christmas Eve, we thought we could have a nice meal (for my husband and I) at a cool place (for the boys) so we went to a restaurant that was formerly a bull ring. I kid you not; both boys experienced projectile vomiting within minutes of each other, right at our table. We could not exit fast enough. Back in our charming (but freezing) hotel, we cleaned up and got the boys ready for the night. Both were still feeling ill and out of sorts, but thankfully they slept through the night. In the morning they awoke to presents and surprises and were delighted that Santa found us so far from home (wink, wink). Even with the joy that the presents on Christmas morning brought them, the boys were still miserable and feverish. And we were so far from home. We felt defeated. Eventually the fevers broke, the bodily fluids ceased their eruptions, and we made the best of it.

The Pumarejos still come to gether to celebrate the holidays even though their two oldest boys now attend university in the US.

But, we never left our home at Christmas ever again. Just kidding. Kind of. In 2010 - the year we moved to Shanghai - we chose to venture out of our comfort zones and spend it with my husband’s brother in Japan, figuring time with family would be better than a first Christmas in secular Shanghai. With the boys being 14, 12, and 10, leaving home for Christmas was a bit easier. Santa didn’t exist, the presents were clothes or electronics, and no one got sick. Plus, the boys really enjoyed seeing where their aunt, uncle, and cousins lived. Mission successful!!

Since then, we’ve gotten bolder, having celebrated Christmas in Thailand, New York, twice in Spain, and most recently, Switzerland (where we now live). Now that our boys are almost all out of the nest, we have to find new and interesting ways to make the holidays feel special and memorable. Spending time together has become our number one priority, and last year we decided to prepare a Christmas Eve feast for just the five of us. Each family member planned out their portion of the menu and we all worked side by side in the kitchen. This created slight chaos and a whole lot of fun. With meal prep mostly complete, we donned our Sunday best and attended mass in our new home country at the beautiful church within walking distance (in a language we didn’t understand). We all agreed it was a new Pumarejo tradition in the making.

Throughout our years in Shanghai, our family has gotten to know quite a few lovely expat families in Shanghai, and nothing makes friends faster than commiserating over shared experiences. I spoke to five of these families about their own experiences of holidays living abroad, how they manage it, and how their traditions may have changed over the years. We hope our stories will inspire you this year to get out and try something new… or cozy up at home and create lasting memories in your own unique way.

The Hentschels

Brigitte Duran Hentschel is no stranger to holding onto tradition as her family grows up. The Hentschels have been in Shanghai for seven years and have three sons aged 30, 20, and 15. Their older son works in Shanghai and their middle son is in university abroad, but they still make time to come together for their most treasured family tradition: baking Christmas cookies. “This is spearheaded by my husband using my mother-in-law’s antique cookie mill and recipe. I find it very cozy to watch my all-male family bake together – something that is traditionally associated with the women of the family,” she says.

Given that her older sons are now working or at university, respectively, it can make for some creative maneuvering to keep the holidays feeling special. “Since our eldest son works in the hospitality industry, and is usually working during the peak of holiday time, we have adjusted our traditional family Christmas meal time from the eve of the 24th to whenever he has time.” In the past, she says the family has dined in the hotel where he works or changed the meal from dinner to lunch, or even just moved their tradition to the 25th. “The most important part is to be complete and together, so if sticking to our traditional 24th eve dinner is not possible, we will adjust it to accommodate everyone’s time,” says Brigitte.

Brigitte is originally from the Philippines and her husband is from Germany. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they both share a Catholic upbringing and have raised their sons with the religious traditions of their childhoods. “Since both of us have been brought up Catholics, we still make sure we all hear mass together as a family on or around Christmas Day. This may be the only common ‘old’ tradition my husband and I have with both our families.”


An early holiday portrait of the Pumarejos two eldest when they were just little ones!

The Reins

Hilary Rein starts the holiday season even earlier, during the American tradition of Thanksgiving which takes place in November. On the third Thursday of the month, she turns friends into family and invites everyone over for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. “When we lived at our US home, our guests were mostly family and a few friends who didn’t have family to celebrate with nearby. In Shanghai, Thanksgiving is all friends - our “family” in China.” For this holiday, Hilary bakes the traditional turkey plus a few other staples such as mashed potatoes and her family’s favorite - Sweet Potato Crumble Casserole. She invites her guests of all nationalities and backgrounds to bring over a favorite dish from his or her home country for an international potluck. It’s a great way to celebrate this American tradition with an expat-style twist.


The Reins like to start the holiday season in November for the American tradition of Thanksgiving.

The Reins have lived abroad for eight years, spending two years in Guangzhou before moving to Shanghai. Their sons are now 23 and 18, both currently living in the US. This can mean sometimes bringing the tradition to their sons. “We try our best to celebrate all the holidays and keep our traditions alive as much as possible. Chinese food on Thanksgiving just doesn’t work for us! For Chanukah I make our family favorite—potato latkes with applesauce and sour cream. Since both boys are away at college in the US, I’ll be having the latkes delivered from a local deli.”

As parents, it can be difficult to keep up time-honored traditions when your children fly the coop, especially if they go abroad. Sometimes it means adjusting expectations and past experiences and finding ways to keep up those traditions or find new ones as a smaller family unit. For the Reins, it’s all about staying connected to their roots. “Trying to remain connected to our American and Jewish roots is challenging while living abroad. Here in Shanghai there is a Jewish community, but the local synagogue is orthodox while we come from a reform background. We are always made to feel welcome, though, so we do get to stay connected somewhat. Holidays to us were always about family first and then friends. Now they are all about friends and more friends. We can’t complain too much because friends are sometimes easier than family!”

And what will happen this year over the beloved Thanksgiving holiday? “Last year’s Thanksgiving saw about 50 of our Shanghai friends gather at our home. This year will be quiet—the boys will travel to be with family for the holiday. Drew, our sophomore, will meet in NY with his Shanghai American School friends and make his own feast. This is a tradition for many of the kids from his school for their first year away from home for the Thanksgiving holiday.”

My own two sons will do exactly the same this year, gathering with former SAS alums in NY for the feast. As parents I don’t think we can ask for anything more than to see our children finding a way to bring family ideals into their own modern day lives.

The Fentons

But it can certainly be hard to stay in touch and make time for everyone when the family is scattered all over the globe and everyone’s got their own schedules. Mika Fenton, a mother with two kids in university abroad says, “What I miss most is the spontaneity of communication. As we do not talk every day like some people do with their kids abroad, we must always arrange a suitable date and time for both kids so we can talk together as a family. This is quite challenging as they have their own lives and we find it difficult to find a time that suits both, even at the weekend. Consequently we occasionally talk with them separately, which they also need anyway when they don’t want to necessarily share with the rest of the family.”

But she counts on the Christmas holiday for the family to come together and enjoy their favorite activity: skiing. While the kids are still relatively young and without much responsibility, meeting up for the holidays is still very tenable. However, Mika acknowledges that one day this may change. “I am also wondering how it will be in the future if/when they have partners and spouses and if we need to share them with the partner’s family!”

Having lived in Shanghai for eight years, the Fentons recently had the opportunity to experience a Chinese holiday that previously they would have enjoyed with their children. Like everything, this new experience had its ups and downs. She explains, “For the October national holiday, my husband and I just went to the holiday destination we used to go to together as a family. It was indeed strange not to have the kids with us and we missed them a lot. My husband used to go diving with my son but now had to go on his own, and finally convinced me to have a go! We are getting used to it but still look forward to having them around. In the future we plan to go on our own to places we have not been before.”

The Rentschlers

Beth Rentschler can relate. They moved to Shanghai in 2010 and have been empty nesters throughout the last eight years. Having grown children with careers in the US means that not every holiday is spent with family, but they make the most of their time. “When our family can’t be with us, we celebrate with the friends we’ve made here in Shanghai. They truly become your family. We try to incorporate a tradition of ours like a certain recipe and share it with our friends. It’s fun to learn about our friends’ traditions and try them,” she says.

One tradition that the Rentschlers have had to fine-tune in Shanghai is the Christmas tree. “In the USA we always got a live tree, but in China we bought our first faux tree because live trees were hard to find in 2010 and very expensive if you did find them. We bought a very tall, very skinny faux tree, which has become our signature Chinese Christmas look. We had to accumulate new ornaments and it’s now fun to remember where we found them in Shanghai.”

And when family does arrive over the holidays, they have figured out a way to celebrate in their host country, without missing a beat. Brigitte explains, “we go to a restaurant for Christmas Eve dinner and to a restaurant for lunch after Christmas and Easter church services. At home, we would be at family or friends’ homes or (hosting) in our home. It’s been fun to mix it up a bit.”

The McCulloughs

Mixing it up has been something Amy McCullough has had to do for a while now. As a mother of two and grandmother of three, she and her husband must now travel during the holidays to see their growing family in the US. Although their family is Jewish, her daughter is married to a man who celebrates Christmas and the whole family now celebrates a blend of the two holiday traditions.

“For the last eight years, the Christmas/Chanukah tradition seems to be the best one to get everyone together. We do gingerbread houses with the grandkids, decorate the tree, and celebrate the twins’ birthday! Luckily this all falls during school vacation. We are always there for Christmas and the birthdays. If we can’t be there for Chanukah due to the yearly date changes, we FaceTime while the candles are lit,” says McCullough.

Like all of the families in this article, the McCulloughs’ main priority is spending time together as a family. She likes that there is a melding of two family traditions and encourages her grandchildren to keep both alive. “We will always make sure we get together for the holidays no matter where we are. The grandkids look forward to that time, and we try to bring in some of the ritual of Chanukah now with them.” She says that playing with the dreidel, making the gingerbread houses, baking and decorating cookies are all ways to create lasting memories.

The takeaway here is that no matter what your background is or where your family lives, the holidays are all about family bonding. Life as an expat inevitably means that families must find new ways to stay in touch and may even have to adjust traditions as circumstances change. As families evolve and grow, and as children become young men and women, we all look for ways to keep coming back together, to celebrate, laugh and bond wherever we may live.