The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Same lyrics, different melodies: On not coping with an expat Christmas

“Drink now the strong beer,
Cut the white loaf here,
The while the meat is a-shredding;
For the rare mince-pie,
And the plums stand by,
To fill the paste that’s a kneading.”
“Ceremonies for Christmas,” by Robert Herrick

Despite at times being a rather ornery young man, I do enjoy Christmas. However, when I really stop and I’m honest with myself I don’t particularly enjoy Christmas in my new “home”.

Minor differences, those little differences that makes being a relatively new expat interesting, irritate the life out of me at Christmas. For a few weeks I turn into one of those skin-peeled British expats living on the Costa del Sol. You know the sort, Richard Littlejohn readers who won’t eat any of that “foreign” muck and find themselves in a constant state of exasperation when the waiters fail to understand their English. Come Yuletide, I transmogrify into them, into something I hate. No longer do I find myself charmed by the local traditions, because they are not my traditions and at Christmas that is precisely what I seem to be desperately grasping for.

To damnation with this “home is where you make it” tosh. Come Christmas there is a specific time and place I find myself in. It turns out that this season brings out the inner conservative in me. Yes, there is still an abundance of tinsel and Christmas trees everywhere, but somehow it all feels slightly off. The problem is that my notion of Christmas is a peculiarly English one.

I try listening to Christmas carols but they often end up striking a discordant note to me. I try singing along to them, but I get lost in the music — by which I don’t mean I get so moved I have a transformative experience, I mean I get tripped up by an unexpected rhythm or tune. The American version of Away in a Manager differs significantly from the British counterpart — same lyrics, different melodies. It is all too culturally discombobulating (that would be a good name for a blog).

On television I watch the old Rankin/Bass TV special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but why? I think I’m hoping that my mind will be tricked into falling for the illusion of nostalgia, the warm memories of a childhood I didn’t have. So each year I force myself to watch that show, hoping I’ll like it. As it happens, I just find myself irritated by Hermey the elf and his dentistry obsession. By the time the King Moonracer, a cross-eyed lion with wings, is introduced into the narrative I decide that Nancy Reagan was right and everyone should “just say no” to drugs (something Rankin and Bass appeared to have found difficult) and turn off the TV.

I try to make the best of a bad thing. I try to educate the natives. I roll down the windows of my car and drive around town with Slade‘s Merry Xmas Everybody convinced that once they hear it they will inately know of its festive superiority over their own efforts. I correct small children when they call Father Christmas, Santa Claus. And like a right old Fanny Cradock (imagine if Julia Child were British — and looked liked Baby Jane), I make mincemeat and force everyone I know to eat mince pies against their own will. Of course, buying mincemeat is a near impossibility here. Even buying all the necessary ingredients is a problem though it can be amusing trying to find them all. I’d advise you to find the most gormless person working at your local supermarket and ask them if they stock suet.

Once I have all my ingredients, I go about making my mincemeat and the heady rich smells of spices and fruit take over the house and at that moment, though it is usually a week before Christmas itself I feel the most Christmassy that I will for the whole season. The next night I make mince pies with the mincemeat along with mulled wine and I have friends over. I put on Carols from King’s and make everyone else put on a ridiculous fake English accent. It’s not quite home, but it’s the best that I can do.

For those at all interested in making mince pies, recipe follows:



Mincemeat Mix Recipe:
I coarsely chop (though that’s optional) 12oz raisins, 8oz golden raisins and 4oz cranberries (feel free to mix and match the amounts to suit your own taste)
Place all that into a bowl and add a handful (I”m not a great one for measurements) of slivered almonds.
I grate the rind of 2 lemons and 2 oranges into the bowl and then add their juice to the mix.
Add 1/2 tsp of grated nutmeg
Add 1/2 tsp of ground cinnamon
Add 2 tsp of ground all spice
I peel an apple and grate it into the mix
Add 8oz of soft brown sugar
Add 2oz (or about half a stick) of unsalted butter. This is in place of suet, so if you can get hold of some then feel free to use that rather than butter.
Mix it all together.
Put it in the oven, covered at 200F for three hours.
After three hours take it out of the oven. Stir the contents and add to it six table spoons of brandy.
Put in the fridge for at least 12 hours to allow the flavours to meld together.

With the pastry, it’s just a basic short crust. I use a flour to butter ratio of 2:1 and add a pinch of salt. I also add grated orange rind and then bind with water.

The rest you can probably work out. Roll out your pastry, cut into circles large enough for your muffin baking tray. Place into baking tray and put a tablespoon of mincemeat. Cover with a smaller pastry circle as a lid for the pie. Bake until before you can smell burning. Sprinkle with icing sugar.

Best served warm with a glass of mulled wine.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, our first canine random nomad!

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18 responses to “Same lyrics, different melodies: On not coping with an expat Christmas

  1. Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane December 6, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    I’m going through the same sort of thing. It’s the first time in years we’re not going back to family in the US for Christmas while abroad, so I’m trying to make Christmas here in Moldova for two. I can’t get myself into the mood much. We bought a fake tree, loads of shiny balls, but it’s not “our” tree and looks institutional. How sad is that.

    So, I’ve decided to put on a Christmas dinner and look to invite people who also are not going home. I don’t want us to sit here sadly by ourselves at the dinner table!

  2. Kate Allison December 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    LOL, Anthony! The bit about hoping the locals will appreciate the superiority of Slade once they hear it…been there, done that, too!

    You can buy suet in our supermarket, but it’s in its pre-processed state, because people only buy it for the birds. So every couple of years I buy a huge block of the stuff and spend a merry afternoon picking through the layers of fat and membrane in an attempt to recreate Atora. No, it’s fine, really – the mincemeat (Delia Smith recipe) comes out very well, and the birds get the leftovers.

  3. nappyvalleygirl December 6, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    This rings so many bells. I play Slade in the car too – makes me feel at home. And we have mince pies and listen to the carols from Kings on Christmas Eve. I agree about the carols – someone just asked me to go carol singing with them and I pointed out that I wouldn’t know half the tunes, as they are all different here. Most vexing. As for Santa, well I’m afraid the rot has spread to the UK too. We just went to see the film ‘Arthur Christmas’ which is an Aardman effort with the very British voices of Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent etc – and throughout, Father Christmas is referred to as Santa (despite the title).

    • awindram December 7, 2011 at 3:12 am

      Was Arthur Christmas any good? Might be interested in seeing it as it’s Aardman, but is it worth it for someone who doesn’t have to take any children to see it? (Bear in mind I saw The Muppets and Puss n Boots during the Thanksgiving weekend).

  4. Emily Cannell December 6, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Ah- I`m currently feeling your pain. The signs in Japan at Starbucks say,” Let`s Merry.” Most of the kids need an explanation of the difference between Santa Claus and the Christmas Tree. But we`re cranking the Christmas tunes anyway!

  5. Helena Halme (@helenahalme) December 7, 2011 at 11:32 am

    I think you’re on the right track – I’ve lived in the UK for 30 years but I still celebrate a very Finnish Christmas Eve and make all the weird and wonderful fish and vegetable dishes which we eat in Finland. The downside is that the whole extended family now demand two Christmases – one Finnish one and one English one. Even my family in Finland have turkey for Christmas Day… I’ve only managed to create a new tradition and doubled the Christmas preparations for all concerned!
    Merry Christmas!
    Helena’s London Life

  6. ML Awanohara December 7, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    Thanks, Anthony, for his highly amusing post. Plus it has a hard kernel of truth to it. You know that old joke about how if you could have anything in the world, you’d pick a Chinese cook, a Japanese wife, an American house, etc. Well, if I could choose from all the celebrations in the world, I’d almost certainly pick an English Christmas. It’s not all relative to what you know: something things really are better than others. And even though England borrowed a lot of its holiday traditions from Germany, you’ve edited them down in such a nice way. Give me Father Christmas, mulled wine, mince pies, King’s College carols, the Queen’s speech and even James Bond re-runs any day!

  7. Louise December 9, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    You’ve just reminded me of why we are going back to the UK for Christmas – as much as I love living in Portugal – boiled fish, onions, carots and pots just doesn’t do it for me but most worrying of all is the absence of a boxing day – it’s back to work on the 26th!

    But I guess it is also about developing your own christmas traditions wherever you are, but there again that can be a mammoth task – so much easier when its all there on tap back home.

    Looking forward to those carols, mince pies, a glass of mulled – yep us Brits do it well!

  8. Steph December 10, 2011 at 11:43 am

    I love the ‘inner conservative’! I have one too and it’s true, they emerge at Christmas when things just aren’t quite right in the country you’ve chosen to live in. We’ve merged three cultures’ worth of Christmas now, having lived in England, Ireland and France. It’s fun, but leaves me a little nostalgic for the 100% English Christmases of my childhood.
    Joyeux Noël !

  9. Pingback: Interlude « Culturally Discombobulated

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