The Cultural Diplomacy of Holiday Traditions

It’s two weeks until Christmas–the lights are on all over town, Christmas music is playing in all of the (very crowded) shopping centres and Leeds’ Christkindlmarkt is packed. My international students are loving it! Whenever I run into them in the city centre, they’ve got their phones out–they take loads of pictures of Christmas lights and decorations, market stalls and food. I love the way Christmas is celebrated in Britain, and it’s made me think about how holiday traditions can communicate culture. 

Being overseas makes you reflect on your own practices, including the way you celebrate holidays. When I came to the UK, I realised that my family’s traditions were not necessarily “American”–there is no single “American” way of celebrating anything, because we’re a melting pot (or salad bowl) of different cultures and we don’t even all celebrate the same things. 

My idea of Christmas is heavily influenced by Swedish traditions, through my Swedish grandma–opening presents on Christmas Eve after a smörgåsbord (julbord) buffet dinner that includes pickled herring, cold cuts, cheese & crackers. The “American” elements of my Christmas are probably the eggnog, the Starbucks Christmas menu, and seeing Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (marking the official start to the holiday season!).

For me, the most surprising thing about the holiday season in Britain is that it is 100% Christmas. There’s no Fox News-dubbed “War on Christmas” here. It’s all advent calendars, Christmas trees and baubles, Christmas jumpers and Christmas pudding. Christmas markets are brought over on trucks from Frankfurt–which is another interesting point about British Christmas: it’s very German. King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte (and later Prince Albert) brought the concept of a Christmas tree to the UK from Germany, among other traditions.

When I was a kid, we did an annual “Holiday Concert” in December. We sang a mix of Hannukah, Christmas (mostly Santa, not Jesus) and secular songs (Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland, etc.). Not so for British kids–even state schools (public schools) put on a nativity and hold Christmas fairs. My son’s school is not affiliated with any church, but they’re doing a nativity next week. Since September he’s been coming home from preschool singing “Away in a Manger” and “Little Donkey”, so it’s definitely about Jesus rather than Santa or snowmen. It’s because Christianity is the official state religion here–Church of England, which the monarch is technically the head of–but it’s so crazy to me. A higher proportion of the US population identifies as Christian than the UK population (71% vs 59%, according to a quick, unscientific Wikipedia check), yet we called it “Winter Break” and I still know the words to “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” twenty-plus years later…

Holiday celebrations are an excellent opportunity for learning about a foreign culture–they reveal values and beliefs, and ultimately, they show how much we all have in common. They’re about family and friends and food–pretty much every celebration around the world shares those elements. Anything that demonstrates this should be considered a valuable tool in exchange diplomacy practice.

To exchange participants, I would suggest they embrace local traditions, join in and ask questions–take an interest in the celebrations, try the food, compare your own traditions with those of the host country.

To exchange diplomacy program administrators, I would suggest they incorporate holiday events into their schedules. The Fulbright Program in the UK, for instance, has a Thanksgiving celebration for American grantees in the UK each year, which is lovely. The holidays can be a lonely, difficult time to be a foreigner, especially if nobody else is celebrating the same things you do. Maybe encourage participants to host their own celebrations and invite host country nationals, or other international students. I’ve hosted Thanksgiving and 4th of July parties for friends from all over the world in the UK, and I’ve been a guest at Lunar New Year celebrations–it’s a great excuse for a party, and you learn something about other cultures, too!

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