Recreating ‘Home’ for the Holidays: Celebrating Traditions while Acknowledging Migratory Grief

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A few weeks ago, many in the United States celebrated Thanksgiving, signaling the beginning of multiple winter holidays in the Northern hemisphere. The history behind Thanksgiving is complicated, problematic and violent, thoughtfully-articulated by SIETAR-USA author, Emily Kawasaki in her recent article Everything you Wanted to Know About American Thanksgiving. And, Thanksgiving also serves as an entry point to discuss the complexities of holidays for those celebrating outside their home country.

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Holidays represent sentimental and special times and are also accompanied by difficult, bittersweet memories. In addition to this complicated combination of feelings, expats, immigrants and global nomads face the added layer of migratory grief— the feeling of loss associated with living outside of your homeland and the reminder that you are no longer in a familiar context. Put another way, respondents of The Migratory Grief and Loss Questionnaire (MGLQ) described migratory grief, “is like having a part of me cut off” (Casado, et al. 2010). The grief that remains can be likened to the phantom limb pain that amputees experience. Indeed, anyone who has spent significant holidays away from ‘home’—or from one of their homes—will understand the homesickness, saudades, yearning, and longing that arise this time of the year (and other times of year, depending on where and when your cultural traditions and rituals stem from).

Aside from acknowledging the psychological reality of migratory grief, how does one recreate the feeling of ‘home’ during the holidays? After years of international living and working with global families, we’ve discovered a few tips to help global families.

Discover the essence of what is important to you about the holiday/tradition

Ask yourself and talk openly with your family about what is it that most ‘gets you’ about the holiday/tradition? Is it time with loved ones? Eating traditional foods? Watching a sports game? Attending a religious ceremony? Celebrating in another way specific to your family? Identifying what matters the most about a specific holiday/tradition allows you to create space for all the feelings and memories you and your family are experiencing and also helps you imagine the best way to move forward.

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We know for instance, that one of the most difficult celebrations for Brazilians when living abroad is New Year’s Eve, or, as we call it in Brazil, Reveillon. Being maybe the only country in the world where everybody wears white and parties hard on this date, Brazilians abroad miss celebrating the beginning of a new year with all the spiritual/mystical traditions and mostly, the joy and hot weather we usually experience during New Year’s Eve parties in the country.


Re-adapt the holiday/tradition for your new environment

Re-imagining a long-standing holiday/tradition in a new context can breathe new life into a previously melancholic situation. Even if the adaptation doesn’t turn out the way you expected, it will make for an excellent story later on!

For Adrienne, the essence of Thanksgiving includes eating homemade food with people she cares about. She discovered this after multiple experiments of how to celebrate Thanksgiving in Brazil; everything from a failed attempt to eat at an American restaurant, only to discover reservations were booked months ago, to hosting a hybrid Thanksgiving-churrasco with pumpkin pie made from the Brazilian desert doce de abobora. 

If you are willing to be flexible, you’ll reap the benefits of re-inventing the holidays, such as developing your own cultural self-awareness based off questions from guests new to the tradition, to receiving offers from other globally-minded folks looking for a shared connection and international experiences.

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Make one or two traditional dishes that are significant to you and your family

It’s not always possible to prepare an elaborate feast or bake that special secret-family-recipe, but with some creative thinking along with a little planning and research in the local grocery stores, it’s very possible to create a dish with a festive flavor. Since the sense of smell is most closely linked to memory, and our sense of taste is interconnected to smell, preparing a dish or two is one way to chemically stimulate feeling closer to ‘home’ and far-away loved ones. If cooking is just not your thing, or it’s not possible to prepare something yourself, consider researching restaurants you might be able to order from. Often embassies and consulates will host parties on important national holidays.

What’s key is to be realistic about the types of celebrations that are doable within your current environment, emotional capacity, and family circumstances. Some years, that might mean intentionally doing nothing, and that’s A-Okay. If you’re up it, our recommendation is to pick something to do to celebrate, as small as the action may be, so that you and your family have a way of acknowledging this sentimental time.

All of that being said, let’s not forget that all of us will be obliged to adapt our holiday parties this year due to Covid. Unfortunately, and for very sad reasons, all of us will be a little bit foreign to this year’s celebrations, if we will even be able to call them that. As “adaptation consultants”, we like to use our know-how to help people to always look for the good aspects of even the most difficult situations. In that sense, we invite you to reflect on cultural traditions, celebrations, family get-togethers and use this year’s lack of ambiance to recognize how important rituals are for us human beings, regardless of how we honor them.

In whichever ways you choose to participate (or intentionally not participate), we at Differänce Intercultural wish you and your families a very healthy and peaceful holiday season!

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