Expat’s Dilemma: Winter Holidays

Wintertime, rich with holidays, is a busy and hectic period for many. But for expats, especially those with children, it can also be confusing, if they come from a country with different traditions.

In the Netherlands the most significant holiday is Sinterklaas, celebrated on December 5, when kids get their biggest presents. The gifts are discussed at school, there’re TV shows and performances, dedicated to Sinterklaas and his helpers – Pieten, and it’s impossible to avoid celebrating it without feeling excluded.



Right after Sinterklaas the Christmas fever begins: all the decorations and attributes get quickly changed, Christmas trees start appearing for sale on every corner, many shops have massive sales, and the Christmas itself is celebrated with a family dinner.


The New Year’s Eve closes the festive period with massive fireworks and parties. The festive ornaments are dismantled right after or even before the New Year’s Eve. As the final festive accord, on January 1, around noon, everybody can join the New Year Plunge in the Hague or Zandvoort. Participation is free and all the participants can get a special hat. 

In Ukraine, where we come from, everything is different.

St. Nicolaus comes on December 19 and kids get a small present, but there’s no big celebration, and many families ignore it at all.

The festive period starts with the New Year’s Eve, the biggest feast, with special dishes, nice clothes (shoes are not important, if celebration takes place at home, as the shoes are left at the door), and the Chinese symbol of the next year crowns the table, together with the TV, broadcasting New Year Eve concerts and the president’s speech. The food, as well as the colors of the outfits and ornaments,  must align with the symbol. Like, if it’s the year of the Earth Pig, the colors should be brown, golden, yellow, grey and no pork on the table. It’s a custom to get your house clean and all the things in order before the new year begins.

Christmas follows on January 7, with a quiet family dinner, preceded by a special dish, kutya (grains with raisins and honey), to be tried before any other food.

Then, there is the Old New Year on January 14, with a special tradition of going from home to home, singing songs and wishing good to the household, while throwing some seeds/ grain for the hosts’ wealth, and receiving for that a coin or some treats. It’s not a public holiday but is celebrated by many.

The cycle of the winter holidays in Ukraine finishes with Epiphany on January 19, with its amazing tradition of jumping into the ice cold water of a lake or river, usually frozen by the time, so the people have to drill a hole in the ice to be able to plunge. Some do simple holes, some cut a cross, for more holiness.

The reason for this “delayed” timing is that the Orthodox Church didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar and still lives according to the Julian calendar which is 13 days behind. In addition, religious holidays are mixed with the pagan traditions, for example: from January 7 to 19 “the heaven open” and the girls can see their future (most importantly, how their love life will look like) during this holy time. There’s a wide variety of fortune-telling techniques to choose from.

So, for expats, in addition to the dilemma what to buy for presents and where to celebrate, there’s another one – what to celebrate and when, how to accommodate all those holidays from both worlds, how to explain to the little children all these differences and at what age to start.

Do you have answers to those questions?  Please, comment and share your experience.

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