I’m not dreaming of a white Christmas. Why would I? I live in the Algarve with the bright sun shining through my picture window as I peck away on my computer. There has only been one instance of snow flurries during the past two winters my lovely wife and I have spent here in southern Portugal. The temperature has never even gotten close to freezing. That’s one of the reasons why we retired here.
I’ll be honest though, sometimes the holidays feel a little strained and strange if you’re an expat. No snow, for example. I lived in Maryland, a mid-Atlantic state back in America, and it didn’t always snow during the holidays, but it did sometimes.
Icy roads, by the way, didn’t always make it that easy or safe to get to grandmother’s house, but a foot of snow did facilitate Santa being able to land his sleigh on the roof. One wonders how he manages here in the Algarve with all those Moorish chimneys and tile roves.
It’s during the holidays that living in a very different place feels the strangest. The customs are different. The weather is different. And your family is far away. There are songs about going home for the holidays. However, if I were to go “home”, the problem would be that my family isn’t there anymore either. They’ve disbursed throughout the vast USA as have our friends, many of whom have retired to warmer climes like Florida, Panama or Spain.
Being an expat is very much a “you’ve made your bed and now you have to sleep in it” kind of deal. Not that it’s an ordeal. Far from it. Many (not all) of my Facebook friends often express a certain degree of envy about our constant clear blue skies and lovely seaside scenery. Most of us have had a choice whether to move here or elsewhere or not at all. The point is that it is definitely different, and that takes some getting used to …
Thanksgiving (the beginning of the season in the States) is a good example. I remember recently rushing around mainly picking up the champagne and other festive fluids that we planned to serve our guests, since, as Americans, we were the only ones that thought a special dinner was called for. The feeling around town was anything but festive. Nobody was off work. For everybody but me, it was just another Thursday.
Our six guests that evening were all Brits who, even though they enjoyed the feast of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, soon realized that our traditional meal was basically the same as their Christmas dinner without the funny hats and crackers. We didn’t sing any seasonal songs either. We just stuffed ourselves. I did have an NFL game streaming on the TV, but nobody but me even glanced at the set. “So that’s Thanksgiving,” they said. They were appreciative but not impressed.
That’s because it is not just the meal that makes the day before Thanksgiving the busiest travel day of the year in the States. In fact, it’s a holy day of family obligation for most Americans, even more so than Christmas.
Especially if your parents are still alive, you might be able to get away with going skiing in late December, but only if you’ve already attended the Thanksgiving gathering of the clan. For expats, with no family around, it’s simply the only time you eat pumpkin pie all year.
By the way, one of the advantages of hosting holiday dinners is leftovers. I ate turkey sandwiches for almost a week after and then finished up with some delicious turkey soup.
Maybe not surprisingly, there is one American tradition that has spread worldwide and that is Black Friday. Sorry but I have never gone to the mall on what I consider the worst shopping day of the year. I like to at least have hope of finding a parking place and being able to pay for my purchases at the cash register within a fortnight. Unfortunately, the most commercial aspect of Christmas has spread because that’s when retailers have finally worked their way out of the red profit wise. I just wish they had come up with a better, less grim-sounding name for the day.
That brings us to Christmas, which is a holiday in many places in the world including Portugal. My lovely wife and I are looking forward to going to a carols night with some of our English friends, who are much more enthusiastic about the actual singing than most Americans.
Also, we have some nice plans for Christmas dinner at a nice restaurant. So, is there a problem? No, not really, except for the fact that we never ate “out” on Christmas back in the States. I would have felt unloved, if we weren’t with family and/or friends and at home.
It’s a lovely time for being somebody’s secret Santa; and sending and receiving greetings, even if only once a year with distant friends and family. Even though we might not go as far as actually having a decorated Christmas tree, we will decorate some and enjoy more parties and get-togethers than any other time of year.
By the way, our scrooge of a president in the States has been making a big deal of people being able to say “Merry Christmas!” again. Well, let me tell you, it was never ever frowned upon to sincerely wish your neighbors a “Merry Christmas”.
The point of saying “Happy Holidays” was and is simply respecting people of different backgrounds. Saying “Happy Holidays” to a general group covers everybody in a positive, cheerful way, like when I was a teacher and some of my students were Jewish or Muslim and of course “other”. So, I would like to wish all the residents of the Algarve “Season’s Greetings”.
By Pat, the expat
For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.