When Home is Far Away at the Holidays

For many folks, the end of the holiday season tends to produce a mixture of sadness and relief.  We’ll miss family bonding, the great food, the good cheer. We won’t miss the daily bombardment of Christmas commercials and the inability to escape the chords of Auld Lang Syne.

If you’re an American who cringes at the excesses of holiday-season commercialism, however, you might be surprised to learn that other countries can be every bit as over-the-top as we are.

Bouche de Noel is a traditional French dessert at Christmas(Credit: InternationalRecipes.net)

Bouche de Noel is a traditional French dessert at Christmas
(Credit: InternationalRecipes.net)

Last month, we saw the holidays through the eyes of refugees new to our country. Today, we see the holidays from the reverse angle as Americans abroad in other places in the world.

Today we see the holidays through the eyes of Robert Carr, a U.S. citizen who has spent much of his life abroad. As a longtime State Department employee, he’s served in eight nations over his career, including some, such as Saudi Arabia, that don’t celebrate holidays such as Christmas. Unlike Mr. Carr, many Americans don’t travel abroad. Indeed, only 30 percent of us have passports.

Credit: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Credit: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Living abroad can bring a host of challenges. There are different languages, foods, cultural traditions, and a little bit of homesickness, no doubt. But there is also the excitement that comes with living in a land that is new to you and learning more about what the world has to offer.

Exciting, yes, but unfortunately it can be dangerous, too. As we learned earlier this year, State Department work can be deadly. An attack on the consulate in Libya left four dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Mr. Carr endured at least one close call in his time as a foreign service officer. His first assignment with the State Department was in the embassy in Baghdad, Iraq in 1966. This was before the rule of the Saddam Hussein. As he puts it, “There was a different thug in charge.”

He was doing interviews for U.S. visas at the time. “My tour came to an abrupt end at the time of the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war when the Iraqis broke relations with the U.S. and we had 48 hours to get out,” he said. “We drove in a convoy to Iran where we spent many weeks waiting for new assignments.”

Mr. Carr retired in 1992, but still has temporary assignments for the State Department, primarily doing visa interviews.  He now lives in Western North Carolina, near Asheville.

We welcome his thoughts on experiencing the holidays in many different lands over the years:
– – –

Serving in the State Department took you to many different nations over the years. Is there any particular winter holiday celebration that a nation observes that stands out from the others?
Other than the absence of any celebration in most Moslem countries, celebrations I have observed were not much different than here.  There was considerable commercialism in the European cities in which I have lived, and some differences in the type of decorations one sees, but nothing that a person raised in America would find radically different.  In Paris, I thought the decorations had a bit more style than one sees here, but this should not be a surprise.

Christmas decorations in Paris, France(Credit: Flickr user ~pauline sirks ~)

Christmas decorations in Paris, France
(Credit: Flickr user ~pauline sirks ~)

Which one was the most similar to what we celebrate here?
Most European countries have similar celebrations.  After all, we imported most of our Christmas traditions from there.  One sees trees, lights, Santas (or St. Nick), etc.  There are some local traditions that take place within individual families, but I didn’t observe any of these.

Which was the most different? And how so?
Again, in Moslem countries there is generally no celebration, and Christmas is pretty much like any other day.  There are some exceptions in countries like Egypt, where there are Christian populations, but their celebrations are much more subdued and largely confined to Christian neighborhoods.

Credit: Redlands Primary School

Christmas decorations in Egypt.
(Credit: Redlands Primary School)

Our nation puts so much emphasis on the holiday season. We celebrate it through movies, music, food, parties. How did it feel for you, as an American, to celebrate the holidays in a foreign land?
We celebrated Christmas in our families and within the foreign (mostly U.S.) community, and these celebrations were quite similar to celebrations here.  Of course, in every country one might not be able to get all the things one is accustomed to here, but often some group would make an effort to import things to make Christmas a bit more like home – frozen turkeys, for example.  When I lived in Kuwait in the 1970s, Christmas cards were hard to find.

Our culture, rightly or wrongly, is sometimes criticized for over-commercializing Christmas. Did the holiday season seem more authentic in other nations? Which ones?
No, commercialism is everywhere.  There are perhaps different styles of advertising and display, but anyone dropped in the middle of a shopping neighborhood in Paris or Brussels (the two cities where I lived in Europe) would immediately recognize that it was the Christmas season.

Oddly, in Saudi Arabia, the local merchants quickly figured out what Christmas was all about and had the shops and malls decorated for the season.  Eventually, however, the Saudi religious police put a stop to any show of Christmas decorations.

Credit: Open Places

Credit: Open Places

You also served in nations with the State Department that don’t celebrate December holidays. So what was it like on days like December 25th in Saudi Arabia? Just another day?
Just another day, although the Embassy was closed and we had the day off.  Only a worldly and well-traveled Saudi could have told you that it was Christmas Day.

Even though Americans like to think of ourselves as being worldly, the majority of U.S. citizens have never lived outside of the state in which they were born. How important do you think is to experience other cultures?
Well, obviously, I think that’s very important – otherwise we’d be even a more insular nation than we are now.  Most Americans have no idea how America is viewed from abroad, and many might be surprised that things about ourselves we take for granted are not viewed in a similar way from overseas.

So where’s the best place to celebrate the holidays? In an exotic, fascinating locale – the sort of place that James Bond finds himself? Or home, such as George Bailey, from “It’s a Wonderful Life?”
There’s no real way to answer that.  I have always liked the new and different, so being abroad at Christmas time was interesting to me, even though the differences were often subtle rather than dramatic.  Most folks, however, think being home for the holidays is all-important (more than a few movies have been made with this theme).

Credit: USA Today

It’s a Wonderful Life
(Credit: USA Today)

– – –
Thank you Mr. Carr for your time. We hope you had a wonderful holiday – no matter where you spent it!

Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.

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