Do they know it’s Christmas time at all? No, they don’t, because it’s just another Tuesday.
This was my somewhat humbuggy Facebook status on Christmas Day 2012, my second Christmas spent in a foreign country. Russia, I should explain, does celebrate Christmas, although with some notable differences to the UK. They still have decorations, presents, special food, and a ‘Father Christmas’ type figure, Дед Мороз (Grandfather Frost) – but these are for their celebrations at New Year. Christmas does exist, but following the Russian Orthodox calendar it’s the 7th January, and is a purely religious holiday, marked simply by attending church and having dinner with one’s family, if at all. Christmas 2012, 2013 and 2014 saw me headed into work on 25th December – because as far as my students were concerned, it was just a normal day.
As I approach my first ‘normal’ Christmas season in the UK since I first started teaching abroad, it got me thinking about Christmas as it’s been for me the last few years. Many EFL teachers will be working in countries which also celebrate Christmas on 24th or 25th December, and so will be heading home for the holidays as per usual. That won’t be the case for everyone though – some teachers will be working in countries where Christmas isn’t celebrated, or at least isn’t celebrated on the 25th (you’re in luck this year guys, it’s a Sunday so you won’t be working!). Others will have the time off, but be living too far away from home for a flight to be practical (or financially viable). So join me on a trip down memory lane: Christmas, EFL teacher style.
Christmas 2011 – my first Christmas abroad.
I have to admit that in many ways I was lucky in that on my first Christmas abroad Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. There were still some elements of surrealism however – waking up to a Christmas stocking from my excellent flatmate, realising that I hadn’t reciprocated, and so dashing off to the local shopping centre for some hasty last-minute Christmas shopping. Eating lunch in Burger King before heading into Moscow to meet friends and spending the entire meal being quizzed by a Russian lady wanting English lessons for her daughter.
Where do you get Christmas dinner in Moscow? Well, I can probably suggest some places now, but in 2011 I don’t think anyone was sure, so we did the next best thing: that traditional English dish, curry.
The rest of Christmas Day was, as I recall, spent wandering around taking photos in the snow, embarking on an (unsuccessful) quest to find a steak house we’d been promised sold reindeer meat, and coming perilously close to missing the last train back home (the joys of living outside the capital – unless you have somewhere to stay in the city, you are always at the mercy of the dreaded last train).
As previously mentioned, Christmas 2012 was my first ‘true’ introduction to celebrating Christmas in a country where December 25th is just another work day. Working on Christmas Day is weird! My older, more culturally aware students did wish me Happy Christmas, as indeed did my colleagues, but for the most part, yep, just Tuesday. I did however cook Christmas dinner for my flatmate and one of my other colleagues in the evening. Christmas dinner 2012: Russian style!
This allows me to mention another staple of the EFL teacher’s Christmas abroad: work Christmas parties. Aside from the strangeness of socialising with people you often don’t normally socialise with, and feeling on edge half the time as you don’t want your boss to see you drunk, Christmas parties take on a whole new level of weird when they’re organised by someone who has never been to a Christmas party.
My well-meaning Russian colleagues always insisted on fancy dress, which lent a somewhat surreal air to proceedings.
The different nationalities of those attending also led to some confusion on the matter of food. In 2012, I was nominated to bring crackers. Now as a Brit, that meant one thing: the Christmas table staple containing a silly paper hat, some kind of gewgaw that will end up on the floor and inevitably get stood on, and one of the worst jokes in the history of mankind. There was just one problem: you can’t buy Christmas crackers in Moscow. I reported back to my colleagues, who regarded me with expressions of incredulity as I informed them of the impossibility of purchasing crackers, for love nor money… they went to our nearest supermarket, and returned… with crackers.
For whatever reason 2013 in general seems to be a year I took very few photos. I did however see in the New Year with fireworks like a proper Russian.
My favourite photo (probably one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken, if I’m honest) was hands-down this one, though:
Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden, waiting for a bus mid-morning of 1st January. How else are they meant to get home after a hard night’s work?!
My final Christmas Day abroad, since in 2015 I had moved to Prague and was able to come home for the 25th. If I’m honest, this was probably my strangest Christmas, as by this point the Russia I was living in was far from the one I had moved to back in 2011.
The ongoing sanctions and counter-sanctions following Russian military intervention in Ukraine meant that in August 2014, a ban was introduced on products imported from the US, the EU, Norway, Canada and Australia, including a ban on fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, milk and dairy imports. The US and British media reported one thing, the Russian media reported another, but what I did find was that the supermarkets became unreliable in the extreme. In the UK, we take it for granted that we can go to a supermarket, buy whatever we want, and the following week those products will still be on the shelves – because, well, that’s how supermarkets work. Christmas Day 2014 was the day that I went to the supermarket planning to buy food for Christmas dinner… and discovered that the supermarket did not sell potatoes. Not that they had sold out, you understand: that they did not have any available to sell in the first place. For the record, roast chicken, cabbage (no sprouts either), carrots and cranberry sauce *do* go ok with rice.
It’s not all doom and gloom though – Christmas 2014 was also a great period. We still decorated the school for New Year, I decorated my flat for Christmas (I think each time I’ve moved country I’ve left a trail of Christmas decorations and yoga mats…), and the Annual Christmas Market at St. Andrew’s Church, Moscow led a sense of festivity to proceedings, even if everything didn’t seem quite ‘normal’.
Now that I’m back in the UK for the forseeable future, I can honestly say that I’m glad to have had the experience of spending Christmas abroad. It’s given me such a valuable insight into how other people celebrate, led me to reflect on what exactly we are celebrating, why, and why we have the traditions we do, and it’s also made me more appreciative of the Christmasses I do get to spend with family and loved ones. I don’t want to deny the facts and present an overly rose-tinted picture though: spending Christmas abroad can be a strange experience (especially if it’s the first time you’ve spent Christmas away from your family) and it can also be a lonely experience.
What advice would I give to someone spending Christmas abroad?
- Try to keep an open mind. It’s unlikely that Christmas abroad is going to be the same as Christmas at home – even if you’re teaching in a country where Christmas is celebrated, there are sure to be differences, even if it’s just in terms of the food. It might be different, but that doesn’t necessarily make it worse – just different.
- Homesickness is normal. I’ve never really had much of a problem with homesickness while living abroad, but Christmas is one of those times where I do find it hits. Do things you enjoy, look after yourself, and remember, you will survive this.
- Spend it with people, if possible. It might be friends, colleagues, or students, but if you’re feeling at all down or are missing family, it’s best to be around people.
- Skype/call your family. If it’s your first Christmas away from home, it’s not just going to be strange for you – it’ll be strange for your family too! Try to arrange a Skype date with your family in advance: it’ll give you something specific to focus on even if nothing else feels Christmassy.
- Don’t be afraid to decorate if you want to. The first couple of years I lived abroad I always resisted decorating for Christmas – it seemed like a waste of money buying decorations when I wasn’t going to be there forever. I’ve come to terms with it now, however, and bought a Christmas tree in Prague even though I was only going to be there for one Christmas, and had no intention of bringing it back home with me. Yes, it might not be a great long-term investment, but if it’ll make you happy for a few weeks, then it’s worth it!
- Find out about your new culture. I’ve always found Christmas to be a great talking point with my students – even if they don’t celebrate Christmas, there’s often a winter holiday of some kind, and this gives you a great opportunity to find out about it. What do they eat, what do they do… students of all ages (even kids!) love having the opportunity to be the teacher for a change!
- Remember that if nothing else, it’s a story to tell! It sounds silly and flippant, but I’ve often found this a helpful reminder to go with the flow when things have got a little bit too strange. My rice Christmas dinner of 2014 wasn’t exactly how I wanted it at the time… but if nothing else, it’s a story!
Have you every spent Christmas living/working abroad?
Did you have any weird and wonderful experiences?