A Christmas Away

For many obvious reasons, living abroad is different from being home. One of the times this is most evident is around the holidays. This was the first year that I’ve spent Christmas away from my family. It was strange not to be with them as they partook in all of our usual holiday traditions. My Dad’s family and many family friends come over on Christmas Eve for what is usually quite a large party. The next morning is the time when my parents and siblings exchange gifts around the tree, eating a coffee cake baked by my Nana (and in recent years we’ve added Bloody Mary’s to the morning’s menu). This is followed by another gathering with my Mom’s family. Although it’s nearly January, it’s hard for me to grasp that this time has come and gone.

For weeks I’ve been wondering why it just doesn’t feel like Christmastime. I thought maybe it was because of all of the above, but I think the weather is having a huge impact as well. Growing up in Boston, Christmas means frigid temperatures and usually snow. So living in a climate that is still hanging onto some 60F (16C) degree days makes me feel as though it’s still September. (If you’re reading this in a cold place, I apologize.) Sure Madrid has some great Christmas decorations but somehow it just seems to be a series of light displays instead of festive decor.

I think it’s important to mention the Spanish Christmas Lottery, also known as “El Gordo.” This is a massive lottery, and about 90% of Spain’s population plays every year. One ticket is 20€ but the first prize is 4,000,000€. People stand in very long lines to buy tickets starting weeks before the holiday. In an attempt to further embrace Spanish culture, I did buy a lottery ticket but unfortunately I am still not a millionaire.

I was invited to a very Spanish Christmas celebration with a friend and the family she lived with while studying abroad here a few years ago. In Spain, Christmas Eve (Noche Buena) is a big deal, and I’m told it’s the only night of the year that families eat dinner together (instead of the typical large Spanish lunch). Christmas Day is celebrated with more family and more food. Lamb is a popular dish, along with a lot of seafood. I personally enjoyed the many desserts including polvorones, turrón, and marzipan. Similar to my experience in Denmark, this family welcomed me into their home on an important holiday having never met me before. It’s hard to find the words to express gratitude to someone in this type of a situation. Thank you just didn’t seem enough. It was a really wonderful way to spend a holiday away from home.

Hygge in Denmark

I’ve wanted to visit Denmark for a really long time. A good friend of mine
studied abroad there and for years has told me how wonderful the country is. She planned a trip to visit for Thanksgiving and invited me to spend the weekend with her and her Danish family. I knew it would be great but it completely exceeded my expectations!

I arrived on Thanksgiving which has always been my favorite holiday. I appreciate that it’s not a time for giving gifts (although the Black Friday mayhem drives me crazy!) and I think it’s important to acknowledge the things you’re thankful for. So I was thankful to be able to share this day with a close friend this year when I couldn’t be with my family. Karen’s host Mom cooked us a fantastic meal, and even added some special Danish flare to the main dish. I immediately felt so welcomed by this family and within an hour of meeting them, I was offered to be “adopted” as the family’s second American daughter.

It was at this meal that I learned the meaning of hygge, which rapidly became the best cultural concept I’ve learned in all my travels. This word can’t be translated to an English word, but instead is the feeling you get when you’re surrounded by people you love. It was explained to me as a cozy night at home with family, or a relaxing evening sipping beer on a terrace with friends in the summertime. There’s nothing I love more than the feeling of being cozy so I was instantly hooked!

Our weekend was filled with Christmas markets, exploring Copenhagen, and spending time with Karen’s family. We celebrated the first day of advent with traditional Danish æbleskiver, gløgg, and homemade julesnaps. The family even held the celebration a day early so Karen and I wouldn’t miss out. This was really special for me, especially since I’ve been away from my family for a while, and that’s always harder during the holidays. 

The truth is, I’m a Grinch around this time of year. I really don’t like the month leading up to Christmas. Everyone is frantically buying gifts, the same 50 Christmas songs are on repeat, and no one seems to be enjoying themselves. It should be a joyous time, but instead everyone is just stressed. So being in one of the most Christmassy places on the first of December seems like my worst nightmare. But I did not feel the consumerism frenzy while I was there. Sure people were shopping (that’s the whole point of the Christmas markets), but it was more about enjoying mulled wine, Christmas elves, and pretty lights than about getting the best deal on another materialistic thing that no one needs. Maybe I was getting slammed with marketing left and right, but I just didn’t know it because I don’t speak Danish. Or maybe this culture has a different way of representing the Christmas season that I find more appealing than the US. Either way, Denmark made my Grinchy heart melt, and I found myself enjoying it all a lot more than usual.


My favorite part about the weekend was coming back from a day of exploring to Thanksgiving leftovers and practicing the Danish words I’d learned with Karen’s family. Sometimes for me, the people I meet in the places I go are what I enjoy most about the experience. Hillerød, Denmark now has a special place in my heart for exactly that reason.