Lost and found in a holiday mash-up (from Expat Life in Thailand)


In a mixed up expat, inpat, third culture, mixed blood, cross-culture family, which holidays should we celebrate? And how?

Each year, the December/January holiday season is a time of confusion for me. We are a family of expats and Thai, third culture, mixed blood, cross-culture kids and adults. I’m from Japan but half grew up in the US; my husband’s German-Thai; and our three kids have been in Thailand since birth. I've read that it's important for children to grow up with family traditions. But with such a wealth of backgrounds to choose from, I am stumped when it comes to figuring out which holidays to celebrate with our kids, and how.

Decorated bamboo for Japanese Tanabata 'Star Festival'
In practice, we commemorate a random mish-mash of holidays throughout the year: April Songkran lod naam (water pouring ceremony) with the Thai elders and November krathong floating, Japanese March Girls' Day and July Tanabata ‘Star Festival’, German-style birthdays, Christmas and, some years, Easter, as well as the ubiquitous American Halloween.

But it’s hard, when you’re the only one in the present family who knows about a particular tradition, or to celebrate a holiday when there's nothing around you that indicates that it's a special day. It doesn’t help having an impossible and unrealistic sense of responsibility to teach my children about all of their cultural heritages, evenly.

For a year or two, I tried to ring in the New Year in Japanese style: I made soba noodles on the 31st, and prepared a mini version of the traditional New Year's dishes and offered them to my German husband and Thai relatives to sample on the 1st. No one showed more than a glancing curiosity for the dishes, which was completely unsurprising and understandable; they were all still busy enjoying the afterglow and leftovers from their main holiday, Christmas.

Or you might find the local interpretation of a holiday all wrong - think Bangkok at Christmas time: gaudy decorations, a cityscape snowless and hot under a blazing sun, and kitschy out-of-tune Christmas songs playing in department stores up to February. Inevitably I wish ourselves in Germany for my husband’s version of Christmas, or in Japan for my family’s New Year, and wonder how our poor kids will ever get to experience the same ‘authentic’ magic as from our own childhoods.

Japanese Girls' Day (Doll's Day)
As I struggle to recreate a Japanese holiday in Thailand for my kids, I wonder, what's the point of 'celebrating' if it's just you, trying to go through the forms which mean nothing to the little ones? What's the point, when the main significance of holidays is to celebrate family and community?

Then Christmas rolls around and each year my husband's western-raised Thai aunts and uncles and clan celebrate together with beautiful, (tastefully!) fully-decorated Christmas trees, candles everywhere, the Bach Christmas Oratorio softly playing in the background, carolling, mulled wine and turkey and stuffing and pudding and the whole works. It’s as ‘authentic’ as one can get in Thailand! My husband has also implemented the Santa Claus family tradition which he remembers from his childhood: the kids go off with him to look out for Santa, but Santa always somehow slips by and leaves the presents under the tree, ringing a bell as he leaves.

Oh yes, the magic is there. And I am deeply grateful, for this family and for this tradition, here, in our home in Thailand.

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