Hearing listeners call in to a radio station to talk about their holiday traditions the other day, I was reminded of the confusion, magic, and hilarity of my first winters and Christmas holidays in the U.S. My arrival in the U.S. was about two months prior to the Christmas holiday, and I had never heard of the word Christmas, let alone all the holiday’s customs.
New Holiday Traditions
About a month into my arrival in the US, I heard about Santa Claus. When we began getting fliers from toy stores in the mail, my six-year-old cousin (who had been in the U.S. since she was one or two years old, so she was well-versed and immersed in all things Santa) introduced the topic to me. I listened with skepticism and confusion as she described in her broken Taiwanese an old man who flies through the sky giving toys to kids around the world.
It sounded crazy and random to the nine-year-old me. I had so many questions: If this old man actually existed, why hadn’t I heard of him before? Why had I never received any toys from him before? Where did he come from and how did he fly? How did he fly around the world giving toys to every child in one night? And how did that work with different time zones around the world?! After asking countless questions without getting one single satisfactory answer, I told my six-year-old cousin that was the stupidest idea I had ever heard and that it was all made up. And that was how my little cousin found out Santa is not real.
There was snow that winter. It was the first time I had ever seen snow. I remember watching in wonder as the fluffy white flakes fell from the sky. My mom kept me home from school because it was strange and cold and difficult to walk on. Then I seem to remember watching a holiday parade march through the streets in front of our apartment building, with Santa waving his white-gloved hand at the children. There were characters from Sesame Street–I remember Big Bird in particular–and I didn’t know what to make of them.
Sometime that December, there was a small fire in the building next to ours in the middle of the night, and we were evacuated along with others in the building. As we stood shivering in the night, a kind, elderly couple who lived across the street invited us into their home to stay warm. That was the first time I saw a Christmas tree, all lit up with presents sitting under it. It was magical. I knew no English then, and couldn’t express my sense of wonder and delight to the kind people. But I will never forget the first time I experienced the beauty and wonder of the holiday season.
I remember a visit to the Rockefeller Center, seeing the big beautiful tree there, and watching people ice skate. The wonder and magic of the holiday season was infectious and uplifting even to someone who had no clue as to the its traditions. Since then, I’ve always enjoyed the spirit of the holiday season, but not so much the consumer-driven and commercialized aspect of it.
What the Heck Is a Rudolph?
The following year, my class had a holiday party. By then, I knew a little more about Christmas, but I still had some ways to go because my own family did not observe any of the Christmas traditions. During the party, I tasted my first eggnog and instantly fell in love with the sweet and creamy drink. My classmates introduced me to fun holiday songs about Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I enjoyed the songs, but also wondered whether these characters from the songs were real. For example, my classmates added their own spin to the song about Rudolph, adding that a reindeer game the reindeer played was Monopoly. I was confused. I thought Monopoly was a human game; how did the reindeer play it? And if they played games like Monopoly, did that mean these reindeer were real and they could talk?! If so, where did they live? And how did Rudolph wind up with a red nose that glowed like a light bulb, according to my friends?
I remember how disorienting it was to be bombarded with these new traditions that seemed so outlandish at the time, but now these memories give me a good chuckle. My son also never tires of laughing at my blunders as a child immigrant. What are some memories you have of experiencing another culture’s traditions for the first time?
Author: Ann Kreske
As a Third Culture Kid, I was born in Taiwan, but raised in the United States, and have lived in over ten cities and towns in three different countries in my lifetime. In 2013, my husband and I decided to fulfill our lifelong dream of living abroad, and, together with our son, moved to and lived in Thailand for two years. I felt I had arrived “home” living abroad, and we were all bitten by the travel bug. Formally trained as an educator and lawyer, I have worked in the fields of education, editing, special education and disability rights advocacy, and veterans law.