Picking and Choosing Traditions as an International Family

By Pia Johansson

I like holiday traditions. Traditions connect you with your past, your present, and your loved ones. It doesn’t matter if they are one hundred years old and everyone does them, or one year old and only done in your family. As an international family, we have the great opportunity to collect and keep the traditions that we like and that represent the story of our family.

Last year, almost exactly a year ago, I moved my family back to Sweden. After 20 years as an expat, I was back in my home country and reunited with my extended family. It was both surprisingly easy and a little bit strange to settle back in. In some ways, it felt like I had never left. So much was the same, particularly, of course, around Christmas time. I really like Christmas and I was so looking forward to showing the girls our traditions, with all the lights, gingerbread, dancing around the Christmas tree, and Lucia of course.

Christmas in Sweden is really quite great. As in Germany, the light it can bring to an otherwise very gloomy and dark period is much appreciated. But I must say, Sweden potentially brings it to another level as the vast majority of all windows (that’s right, individual windows, not homes) in residential areas contain a star or an electric candelabra, plus fairy lights in trees, bushes and on balconies. It’s really quite wonderful.

Lucia is another light related event, which together with Midsummer, is almost as Swedish as it gets. It stems from the story of a Catholic saint, St Lucia, and is celebrated on the 13th of December. Sweden is mostly Protestant, so who knows how this Catholic saint got such traction here, but it probably has some Norse correlation, as many of our holidays do. It involves a procession of white-clad people walking through the dark, carrying candles and singing Christmas songs and hymns, and it is very nice. There are two main versions. The serious versions with adults or teenagers walking with live candles in their hands and hair (Lucia heads the procession and has candles in a sort of crown). They sing beautifully, often in a church or other big hall. The other version is the kiddie version. Most schools and preschools have Lucia celebrations and they are so incredibly cute. No live candles here, obviously.

As a more personal tradition, although probably quite common, we bake saffron buns (Lussebullar, related to the Lucia celebration) and gingerbread cookies. The latter are decorated and hung in the tree or put with a gingerbread house (another tradition which will shortly be revived in our home). I baked gingerbread with my mum and grandmother when I was a child, and now my girls can do the same.

In Sweden we celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December with a Smorgasbord (of course) with a big ham as the centrepiece. We also dance around the tree singing Christmas songs, which I think is pretty unique to the region as well. Tomten (basically Santa, but he is a combination of the American and European versions and our own house and forest gnomes) comes after dark (so the children have to wait all day), and hands out presents that are mostly kept under the tree. It’s a bit of a joke that the Dad of the family is never there for when Tomten comes: he just popped out to the store. As the kids get older, people get more inventive, and ask neighbours or other friends to play Santa. Another fun note about Swedish Christmas is that at 15:00 the majority of Swedes used to park themselves in front of the television and watch Donald Duck and snippets from the Disney movies called “From All of Us to All of You”. The same ones (almost, new movies get an airing too), every year, since 1960. It has now lost some of its appeal, it appears, but I, the Super Swede, still like it.

Because that’s how it is sometimes. As an expat one is more Swedish than the Swedes. However, the fact that it did feel that I had never left, combined with not actually being an expat anymore, did send me for a bit of a spin. I felt like so much of identity was lost, which was compounded by the concomitant end of my 20-year-old dream of having my own independent research lab. Therefore, I thought it was important to maintain some of that international identity, for both myself and my family. My husband is Australian, so of course a lot of it comes automatically, but I will try to make a conscious effort to maintain our personal family history. I think one can collect and choose the traditions that one likes.

However, this all has to wait one more year as we leave for Australia tomorrow and miss out on both Lucia and Donald Duck! But despite living in Australia for ten years, I have never celebrated a family Christmas there, so I am very much looking forward to it. And let’s see what new traditions I can collect.

Happy Holidays!!


Pia Johansson is a research scientist in neurobiology, mother of two and working mum. She was an expat for almost twenty years, in Australia and Munich and a short wild stint in Dublin many many years ago. She is in the throes of being repatriated to Sweden with her Australian husband. She likes talking, running and talking about running. And chocolate (although mostly 85% these days, as crazy as that sounds). In addition to staying fit and eating healthy, and raising happy healthy children, she dreams of doing something a little bit creative like writing or becoming a photographer. Or at least organizing her photos soon.

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