Most people I grew up with stayed home for Christmas. But then there were the oddballs that would fly elsewhere for Christmas, like Paris, just like they do in Home Alone. Or, Hawaii. Hawaii? I mean, give me the tropical bliss of Hawaiian beach vacation any day – any day but Christmas. Maybe it’s just me, but I just can’t wrap my head around Christmas without dustings of snow, the scent of pine, and hot cocoa by a crackling fire. There was that one time I went to Hawaii in December, but there was no “Mele Kalikimaka” Christmas day for me there. I was right back in front of my Canadian Christmas tree in time for the 25th. Getting into Christmas here in Italy these past two years since living here and embracing new traditions has been a challenge with its good and bad, as per usual. It becomes painfully obvious that an expat has need to somehow maintain rooted traditions too, or at least, mix a concoction in with the new ways of bringing in the Season. Here are a few small ways we’ve been doing Natale time at casa nostra here in Florence, keeping in mind that at the moment it’s just me and my hubby, no little halfer kids running around the Christmas tree yet!
- Thoughtful gifts. You’re probably spending all your money on flights or postage for gifts for family. This leaves for even more room (necissity) to get creative. Personal gifts are always the best anyway!
- Volunteer as a gift and to spend quality holiday time together. The best gift also for yourself is to give, for reals.
- A new gift idea we thought we would try this year is one that goes year round: Start a memories jar. Write a one little happy memory, thought, good thing, whatever your heart’s content, for every day of the year starting New Year’s Day. You can read them at the end of the year to reflect on all the merriment had! Maybe peek at a few here and there for boosters on bad days throughout the year too.
- Countdown like kids. When I have my own kids, I see myself getting more creative with advent calendars. But for now, for our adult selves, we go for these:
- Have a cup of cheer and make a new holiday drink each year. Ok, at least one.
Christmas lights walk: yes walk, not drive. Growing up we would drive around to see houses that might parallel the Griswold’s with light decor. One of the most lovely things about living in Florence at any time of year is how walkable this city is. It’s so much better when your walk is all twinkly with strands of pretty lights overhead, adorning centuries-old buildings!
- Give a Christmas movie education – seriously, these are the only Christmas movies my Italian husband had ever seen: Miracle on 34th Street (the only one acceptable as “classic” on the list), Trading Places (that Eddie Murphy flick from the 80s is a Christmas movie?!), Love Actually (semi-Christmas movie), and Home Alone (an ultimate fav amongst Italians that is titled “Mamma Ho Perso L’Aereo” literally: Mom, I missed the flight!). Seriously! Ask an Italian if they have seen any Christmas classics like “A Christmas Carol” or “Christmas Vacation” (cuz that’s a classic now, right?!) and they will scrunch their faces and shrug their shoulders at you as your eyes pop out of your head. Ergo, educate. Have a Christmas film festival at your home. May I strongly suggest you include Elf!! Elf will be watched a dozen times or so in my home for as long as I celebrate Christmases, and that’s that. Not just because it makes me laugh like crazy, but as sweet little side notes, it was filmed in my original city, Vancouver, and my high school cheerleading coach is actually one of the elves! Another important reason I love this film: Because “smiling’s my favourite!”
- Make a gingerbread house – ok, let’s be honest here. Not only is it tough to find the ready made gingerbread house kits (darn near impossible, but thankfully there is actually Ikea in Italy!!!), but the candy selection here is also severely lacking. You can make-do just fine and dandy with the candy here, however. You can also be adventurous and attempt to make your own gingerbread house pieces…and major props to you if you do such a mad thing. For recipes, Pinterest is your friend. So are international shops if you can find them in your city. Here in Florence you can find things like molasses for gingerbread baking at Vivi Market. This activity is probably a “the more the merrier” one, so invite your friends over. They provide more candy supplies that way too!
- Bake up a Christmas storm. Since you already have the goods like molasses and dried cranberries, and oooobviously here in Italy you have Nutella, make mash-ups of your favourites and theirs. Along with the gingerbread, people went nuts over the Nutella truffles with hazelnut liquor I made last year. Another holiday favourite has been the copycat Starbucks Cranberry Bliss Bars I make. Italians for some reason adore the idea of Starbucks!
- Introduce Christmas carols to your non-English family and friends. I think the only one they know here in English (or at least the first two lines) is “Jingle Bells.” That NEEDS to change before I go Grinch on the next person who even hums the tune. As I’m teaching students and others traditional Christmas songs, I’m realizing that even many English-speakers (myself included) don’t even know what-the-nutcracker is being said in the lyrics! It becomes an entertaining language and history lesson for all in this sense. Good tidings to you and your kin, but I’ll pass on the figgy pudding, thanks.
- Make eggnog. The closest thing to eggnog that I’ve discovered here in Italy is zabione. And it’s
NOT eggnog. So, here we are again getting in touch with our culinary sides and making things from scratch. Spice it up with nutmeg to tickle your Christmasy senses and slip some rum or brandy in it to warm up after that Chirstmas lights walk you went on. 🙂
- Christmas market madness!!! That’s the thing to do here to get into the Christmas spirit. Bundle up and get ready to warm those hands with mulled wine as you browse the cute wooden stalls for European crafts. The main one in Florence happens in Piazza Santa Croce and for whatever reason (anyone know why?) it’s German. Weihnachtsmarkt is its name. And I learned that the mulled wine is called Glühwein which is fun to say, especially while you’re drinking it…Here’s a link to where many of the Christmas markets are in Italy.
- Artisanal Christmas shopping – head to the markets in the piazzas or explore Oltrarno neighbourhood here in Florence to find some unique gifts. We’ve gone shopping and returned with nothing (fail) but we had a lot of fun glancing at many cool creations, antiques, and often quirky things that made us laugh (success!). We bought a “consolation gelato” for our lack of gift purchases (double success). “Guess we’ll just have to go again!” Not a problem, this neighbourhood always holds new surprises!
- Do the cheesy Christmas card photos – we decided that each year we will do some kind of
Christmas photo to give to our loved ones. Not because we are arrogant and think we are ridiculously good looking, but because we like to appreciate the uniqueness of the scenery here in Florence and because it’s just silly fun to walk around the town decked out in silly Christmas hats, wrapped in garland, and do a photo shoot! Brings smiles to all as it’s happening and with the keepsake photos thereafter.
- Drive into the mountains! – Last year was this “true north” girl’s first Christmas ever that was NOT in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Like many expat experiences, it was bittersweet. It broke my heart not to be with my family and friends in Canada at the most wonderful time of the year. It felt super weird to not do the same stuff we do back in Canada at Christmas. There are no big bushy Douglas fir trees to decorate in Italy. I’m not surrounded by snowy mountain tops in Florence. So, my husband and I took ourselves to them last year. And here is something I can’t do in Canada, the second largest country in the world – drive around for a couple of days and touch FOUR countries as we go. Last Christmas season Alessio and I went to visit his family for Christmas in Milan, then we drove to Vipiteno in northern Italy. It totally felt like we were already in Germany. They were more prone to speak German than Italian. The signs were even more commonly written in German! Vipiteno is one of the adorable towns that hosts one of those Christmas markets. Walking around the little streets and squares all sweetly colourful and decorated made me feel like I was walking inside one of the Christmas village scenes that you put on your mantle. After that we drove through Austria and headed up to Germany, specifically to see a fairytale castle that I had been wanting to see so badly since I first saw a photo of it. Seeing the Neuschwanstein Castle also made me feel like I was walking in a dream come to life.
But my most favourite part of that trip was the drive. Driving through the mountains in Italy, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The majesty of the Alps struck my homesick heartstrings in perfect harmony.
Roadtrip adventures are notoriously known for funny stories too, like the moment when we were in the middle of a high range in the Alps with no bathroom stops for miles. It was freezing, the silence between the snow banks we were driving through was deafening, and it was blindingly bright white. But this girl had to go so bad that she didn’t care if she froze her butt off while slightly altering the colour of that white snow…and that, THAT, would only naturally be the moment that a booming sound came from out of nowhere…a tour bus…rounded the corner oh-so-slowly at the very spot where I made my makeshift, open-air outhouse…ah, the memories!
- Finally, get into the festivities right where you are. There are many blog posts from other awesome expats who share their ideas of how to make the season bright wherever they are. There are also ones who have been around town way longer and know where all the events are at. For example, Girl in Florence posts an exciting events least every month, and this December version is always one to anticipate!
- Celebrate the ultimate gift of Love at Christmas. You might not know this, but there are not only Catholic churches here in Italy. We attend a new one here in Florence, an evangelical Christian church in both English and Italian with a such beautifully diverse bunch of people that they called it Mosaico Church. We meet in a Caffè Decò in Piazza della Libertà. So expect a humble, casual environment and to have coffee and pastry right there at church with people who keep it real. Kids are also welcome and have their own space for fun activities. Services are every Sunday at 11:00am, but this coming Saturday there is a fun-and-free-for-all Christmas Event! We’re showing Elf on a big screen (in Italian, adding a whole new element of hilarity!), there will be popcorn and cotton candy, writing letters to Santa and, my hubby in a big red suit…I mean, Santa himself, there for photo ops!
Like I already said, I’m a newbie at doing Christmas abroad from my past traditions, so please, seasoned expats, do tell how you survive and thrive through the holiday seasons! What traditions do you keep from your culture while living abroad? What are some new ones you’ve embraced? “Buon Christmas” a tutti!