Monday, December 19, 2011

Childishly homesick at Christmas

As an Australian child, I grew up believing that Santa Claus lived at the North Pole, that on Christmas Eve he miraculously flew around the whole world delivering gifts, and that on Christmas morning I would find my own gifts excitingly nestled inside my Christmas stocking.

On moving to Finland, I learned that I’d been sadly misinformed.

Apparently he is not “Santa”, but rather “joulupukki”. He doesn’t live at the romantically vague North Pole, but at the geographically-specific Korvatunturi in Finnish Lapland. He does not remain a mysterious, magical figure who flits down the chimney and whisks around, unseen, while children are dreaming of sugarplums, but rather he knocks at the door and appears in person in your home on Christmas Eve to distribute your children’s gifts. Oh, and here, although the 24th is still known as Christmas Eve, it is not the prelude to Christmas – it IS Christmas.  

People often ask me if I miss Australia. I can also honestly say that although I miss family and friends, I don’t usually look back and pine after my old life. I am proud to be Australian and feel lucky to have had a great childhood there, but Australia is not where I live any more. I am all for enjoying the present. I also happen to love living in Helsinki.

Except that at Christmas, I feel lost and lonely.

And homesick. Tearfully and achingly homesick, for a time and place that is far behind me.

Everything here is just so different. At any other time of the year this doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but somehow, at Christmas, it gets to me, and eats away at me.

I am determined to go along with what are long-standing traditions here in Finland. My 6 year old has learned, from school and from her friends, that there are particular details she can expect from a Finnish Christmas. That alone makes me want to toe the line and shove aside my own Christmas instincts in favour of those of my adopted country. But as well as that, I don’t want to be one of those foreign residents who try to grow non-native flora in the Finnish snow. I live here, and I want to try to Do As The Romans Do.

Besides, there is every reason why I should love Finnish Christmas traditions. There is so much that is beautiful and wonderful - the smell of real fir trees, actual snow falling softly and gorgeously everywhere, the kids in their elf hats, the quiet beauty of candles lit in the graveyards, the smell of crisp ginger-cookies and mulled wine in the air…

I thought I was ok with it all this year. My children and I have proudly made no fewer than three gingerbread houses from scratch. My husband and I have been imbibing his home-made mulled wine with great pleasure. We’ve enjoyed a handful of lovely “pikku joulu” Christmas parties with friends. We’ve proudly watched our offspring sing Christmas songs at their respective school concerts. I took my kids to see the three-storey-high fir tree that grows in a reserve near our home, and shared their wonder at how someone had managed to string it with fairy lights and put a sparkling star on the very top. I expertly wrote “Hyvää Joulua!” in our Christmas cards.

And yet last night, wrapping my kids’ Santa gifts, suddenly it all started to go pear-shaped.

I found myself having to ask my husband inane questions like: Do I need to label these with the children’s names? [Yes, otherwise how will “Santa” know whose is whose?] What about their Christmas stockings? (big, velvety stockings that once belonged to me and my brother; handmade for us by my mother’s close friend; lovingly saved and passed on with love to my daughters…) [Not needed. Santa will come and bring the presents! Why would there be any need for Christmas stockings?] What time will “Santa” be coming on the 24th? Who has been cast as our Santa this year? Can that person be trusted to be convincing? Is he going to speak Finnish or English?

And suddenly, I felt myself getting cross and shrill and sad, hot tears creeping up the back of my throat.

It took me a while to work out why I was so upset. I think it’s this: Christmas was a wonderful, magical time for my childhood self. I want to re-create that magic for my children, but how can I do that when I’m just not quite feeling the magic myself?

Digging deeper and being even more honest with myself, I realize that I wanted re-create MY Christmas for my children, with all the special details I remembered so well, and re-live that childhood magic vicariously through my children. I wanted to turn each of them into my childhood Christmas self, because at Christmas time, on some level I want to be that little girl all over again.

I thought my Christmas angst was all about my children, but actually, it’s all about me.

I just don’t yet feel in harmony with this new kind of Christmas. I feel like I’m still reading the instruction manual; learning a new script; coming to terms with details that are far from being second nature and in many cases feel a bit foreign and awkward.

I feel like a petulant child whose family has moved into a new house – I’m sitting in a lovely new bedroom, with pretty curtains and freshly-painted walls, and yet I'm childishly mourning the loss of my old room, knowing that this new one (though lovely in its own way) will never feel quite the same.

I feel ridiculous about feeling this way. The problem is, though, that Christmas is all about children, and children are all about detail. Even after all these years, my Christmas details remain so much a part of me. Try as I might, I just can’t seem to let go. 


  1. Oh Katriina. You sound so pained about this I wanted to give you a virtual hug.

    You are right - it is "a good and admirable thing" to adopt native customs.

    But you are also Katriina the Australian. The woman who remembers with such tender fondness the magic of an Australian Xmas - and isn't that wonderful - your family childhood memories are such lovely ones.

    Why not bring a little of your childhood traditions into your own childrens lives. After all they have your inheritance too...they are doubly blessed!

  2. Thank you for your lovely warm words - I really felt your comforting virtual hug in the midst of my petulance!

    I have tried to integrate a few of my own traditions, but the problem is that some of the fundamentals here (eg Santa, when the Christmas tree is put up, the climate!) are so different that the end result just feels more confusing than comforting at the moment. I think (hope) I will get a grip after a few more Christmases here. We just have to get into our own Christmas groove as a family.

    Have also decided that Santa will bloody well put the girls' gifts into their (my) Christmas stockings, even if they see him doing it! :)

  3. Haha! After all Xmas stockings are just one of the best bits about Xmas!!
    You have fun...

  4. big hugs! I wonder how your grandmother from Russia also felt loosing her Xmas and having the Aussie version thrust upon her?do you remember if any of her traditions were passed down?

  5. Every Christmas in every Australian (or Finnish) home is not exactly the same to the absolute detail.....we all create our own traditions within the overall tradition of the country that we are in or from. So work with husband within that - how can you make a unique tradition for your family as it is now - incorporate important details for you and for him and then enjoy the end result. Having santa put presents into a stocking (even in front of them) is OK....but how about if Santa's helpers also leave a small stocking on their bed/outside their doors during Christmas eve night....presents he "forgot to leave" on the 24th which can then be enjoyed with awe on the 25th??...who says santa can't come twice.....

  6. Maybe you should try to view it like a child yourself? If nothing else that always brings the Christmas spirit.

  7. Thank you all for your lovely comments, and I'm sorry that I haven't replied until now (very limited internet access over Christmas!)

    I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas season.

    As soon as I get a chance, I will write a post about how well Christmas actually turned out. I managed to put aside my misgivings and just try to have a sense of adventure, while hanging on to a few small things I really wanted, like those infamous stockings! Anonymous, in this sense I do think I managed to view Christmas like a child - actively looking for excitement and seeing the positive in everything.

    As it turned out, my brother-in-law played Santa, and I have to say, he did an AWESOME job, to the point where not only was my 6 year old completely convinced, but I was honestly as excited as my children! It really felt as if we were being visited by the real Santa, and the whole atmosphere was charged with Christmas magic.

    My resolution for next Christmas will be to keep my eyes open to the new. I will never be able to stop looking back, and I think that's ok. It would, after all, be a real shame if I didn't take a moment to remember past happy Christmases, even if the memories make me a bit nostalgic and even sad/lonely/homesick at times. What I need to remember is that memories are just that - memories. I can't let them get in the way of enjoying the moment and the NOW, and making them my own.

  8. Hi Katriina, reading your lovely post it seems like there are two things going on. 1) You miss an English-speaking Xmas (as in the kind celebrated in Oz, UK, America, etc.), but b) you also pine for the uniqueness of an Aussie Xmas (as in the kind celebrated in the sun, the polar reverse of a northern hemisphere Xmas). Over here, I find myself missing the cold, the quiet, and the traditional sights and sounds associated a 'the northern' Xmas, but I'm grateful that we share similar traditions such as turkey and ham, gifts on Xmas morning, Boxing Day with family, etc. However, after 6 years in Sydney, it still feels WEIRD to be under a hot sun on the 25th December :)

  9. Russell, thank you very much for your comment, and for taking the time to read my post. I can well imagine how weird it feels for you to celebrate Christmas in the heat! It truly is the polar opposite of a Northern hemisphere winter (literally and metaphorically). The Northern Christmas traditions were already quite familiar to me before moving here - as children we read heaps of stories featuring Christmases with snow and plum pudding and sleds - but the Australian/South African/South American Christmas must be both fairly unknown and pretty unusual to Europeans!