Global Holiday Traditions: What I Learned Growing Up as a Nomad

Growing up, my parents’ work transplanted our family all around the globe (I’d lived in five countries by the time I was 18), and Corliss family Christmases were typically spent thousands of miles away from our home state of Massachusetts. Despite the lack of mistletoe and cranberries, we made the most of the season by blending our Boston-bred traditions with local customs. Here’s what I learned along the way.

The Comforts of Home

While living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I decked out our apartment balcony with strings of twinkling red and green Christmas lights. Unfortunately, the unfamiliar sight quickly drew a crowd of onlookers and we moved the lights inside, but even indoors, that sparkle made me so happy. My main takeaway: Small touches of home make a big impact (and electrical adaptors are essential).

Burn, Baby, Burn

Before I was born, my parents lived in Quito, where they became enamored of the Ecuadorian tradition of aos viejos, straw effigies stuffed with firecrackers and sawdust that represent the passing year. On New Year’s Eve, families gather together to playfully taunt and beat the dolls. When the clock strikes midnight, this symbol of the old year is set on fire, freeing the family from any lingering negative vibes. As an adult, I’ve adapted this tradition in my own way. (Hint: It involves pictures of ex-boyfriends.)

Grape Expectations

When visiting my brother during his Spanish sojourn, I learned that locals stuff 12 grapes into their mouths to bring good health and prosperity for the coming year. Insider tip: Don’t wash down your lucky grapes with Kalimotxo (a popular Basque blend of red wine and cola.) Trust me—this traveler learned that lesson the hard way.

E.T. Phoned Home—and So Should You

Back in the day, the only way to get my Christmas wish list from point A (Saudi Arabia) to point B (the North Pole) was shoddy snail mail. When my Aunt Virginia sent me a holiday fruitcake (call me crazy, but I love me a fruitcake), it arrived in June (and actually was still edible). Fortunately, it’s supereasy to stay connected these days. If I were still living abroad, I’d be planning out Google Hangouts and Skype sessions with my pals back home.

Get a Little Nutty

Along with inexpensive furniture and irresistible dance pop, the Swedes have a knack for fun, quirky traditions. While I never lived in Sweden, a friend who did turned me on to warm and gooey julgröt, or yule porridge. To celebrate Scandinavian style, cozy up to this recipe and fold in a single blanched almond. The lucky (depending on your outlook) lady who finds the almond in her dish will be married within a year. Accompanying ABBA playlist not required, but highly encouraged.

There’s a New Grinch in Town

You’re a mean one, Mister Grinch—but you’re a walk in the park compared to the awesomely frightening Baba Yaga. A popular villain in Russian folklore, this next-level meanie travels via a magical flying pestle and feeds herself on the blood of young children. (Cheery stuff, huh?) This year, I’m planning to suspend my annual holiday viewing of The Grinch and screening Василиса Прекраснаяor Vasilisa the Beautiful instead. This Russian classic tells the tale of Vasilisa and her narrow escape from Baba Yaga’s deep-woods hut, which is made of chicken legs and human bones. Happy Holidays!

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