In our family we have a tradition of always arriving late. Now, I don’t know if this really counts as a tradition (and I have often wondered how this is possible with our Swiss DNA – shouldn’t we have punctuality programmed in there somewhere?), but the point is, we must have picked it up in some country or other (yes, I know – always blame it on the others). Of course, this is the time of year when a wee bit of organization would come in handy, what with all the festivities lined up before the Event of All Events – for my children at least – which is Christmas.
Just the thought of all those costumes and presents and baking makes me shudder inside and want to pack my bags and flee on the next plane back to one of those exciting countries I lived in as a child. Now that I’ve brought my children up bilingually, though, of course the various traditions need to be lived and learned, too. Yet somehow the increase is not merely a doubling of traditions, it feels exponential. Each culture you come across seems to add another excuse for an extra event, party, get-together or celebration.
When I was a child living in Holland, we used to celebrate Sinterklaas. The Dutch Santa arrives on a steamboat on the 5th of December and puts sweets into a pair of clogs you put out at night. Luckily he comes a day before the Swiss Santiklaus (or Samichlaus), who arrives in the evening and on a donkey. A good imagination helps to tie the story together to make it believable to the children, in some form or another. Whereas, honestly, I don’t think I ever really worried about the discrepancies as a child. The Dutch Sinterklaas left me a delicious Shokolade Letter K, and the Swiss Santiklaus made me recite funny poems about hiding behind the stove and begging him not to put me in his sack (arguably a traumatizing prospect, where you believe you might be dragged into the depths of the Black Forest and only be sent back if you behave). In return, he gave us fresh peanuts and tangerines.
My poor English classmates had to wait more than a fortnight more to have their Santa squeeze himself down a chimney, but with the added benefit of receiving much larger gifts. Having said that, though, I will add that we had our Jesus Chindli (also Christkindli), the Christ child who would sneak in to light the candles on the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. He would also leave the presents we’d wished for before ringing a bell that sounded like a thousand fairies singing and disappearing out through a window. Waiting at the door we would run in and try desperately to catch sight of him. Again, for a child this was delightful, magical and out of this world. For me as an adult – indeed, as a mum – well, it’s an altogether different story.
Over the years, I found myself buying more and more presents and sweets and chocolates for my kids. In fact, I think I began muddling the traditions up. My partner started complaining that the Swiss Santiklaus does NOT bring large presents, only fruits and chocolate hearts. He asked me if it was REALLY necessary to have chocolate letters sent from their godparents in Holland as well? Then there was the baking. From mid-November onwards, my girls often come home from a friend’s house with a plate full of homemade biscuits in all sorts of Christmassy shapes. “Can we bake some at home too?” they ask. I don’t ever remember baking with my friends when we lived abroad. In Oman, we would go to the clubhouse for the Friday curry evening and then hop on an open truck and sing carols as we drove around from street to street. (In my opinion this was a much more mum-friendly version!)
Now I can understand that all these traditions are very appealing, especially to children, and so I made the decision not so long ago that I will simply take the best out of all of them and celebrate the winter season festivities in my own way. I have an amazing former babysitter who is now a friend of the family. She loves to come once a year on the day before Santiklaus and, while my partner and I go out for a nice dinner and some wine, she spends the entire evening baking with the children. This has become a tradition of sorts and a very pleasant one indeed. They have a ball, and we get to taste the result! As for Santa, well, we got tired of remembering the stories we had told the previous year and even started getting confused ourselves, trying to explain why there were so many different ones: one for each nationality and even for each department store, not to mention why the one that came to our home looked different to the one walking past our house to the neighbours’. Inevitably the children started noticing that, “Hey, psst, Mami – Santiklaus looks like Grandaddy! Oh no, look, his beard is all wrong.” So it’s only a matter of time before even our youngest will turn to her older siblings and ask, “So, how long have you known?” Perfect time to start rethinking and realigning all those traditions, and this time we can all do it together as a family, which is ultimately and delightfully what it’s all about, really, isn’t it?