Expat Christmas Traditions

By - December 20, 2010 (Updated: December 1, 2014)

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Christmas in Belgium.
Sharing our Christmas Traditions with friends

Sharing our Christmas Traditions with friends

One of the hardest things about being an expat is being far away from loved ones during special occasions. Being on the opposit side of the ocean from our families, at Christmastime, is difficult. But throughout our years in Belgium, Andrew and I have made new expat Christmas traditions as well as maintaining some of our Canadian ones.

I recently wrote about visiting the Brussels Christmas Market. This is certainly one of our favourite new holiday traditions. We grab a plate of oysters and some champagne and enjoy the lightshow on Grand Place. It’s especially fun to share this tradition with visiting friends and family.

The Electrabel Nights Lightshow in Grand Place

The Electrabel Nights Lightshow in Grand Place

I’ve often written that technology is an expat’s best friend. During the holidays this is definitely the case. To help us feel close to our families on Christmas day, we video conference using Skype. I’m able to see and chat with my Grandparents, who are both in their 90s, we can catch up with our parents and Andrew’s siblings and watch our little nephew grow up. Of course, it’s not as good as being there in person but it certainly helps.

We’ve also adapted some of our Canadian Christmas traditions to suit our expat life. We still get a real Christmas tree each year, granted it is much smaller than the one we used to have in Nova Scotia. I blame the tiny tree on the size of our small flat, but it actually has more to do with hauling greenery up 80 stairs. We still listen to cheesy Christmas music while we trim our tree. We’ve also downloaded a bunch of our favourite childhood Christmas movies, to enjoy in the evenings.

Our Christmas Tree

Our little Christmas tree is representative of us. The ornaments include 4 cats, a St. Bernard, a lobster, a Scottish Piper, a goat and a few high-heeled shoes.

By far my favourite Christmas traditions revolve around food and our expat Christmases are no exception. The centrepiece of our Canadian Christmas table was always a huge roast turkey. It took some investigating to find good turkey in Belgium but each year I carry on this tradition. (FYI Jack O’Shea’s sells gorgeous Christmas turkeys.)

In addition to the bird, Christmas dinner isn’t complete without all of the trimmings. There must be cranberry sauce, gravy, roasted vegitables, and stuffing. I’ve experimented with different recipes over the years but one thing doesn’t change – like my mother and grandmothers before me, I always cook enough to feed an army.

Since we don’t have an army handy, we’ve taken to inviting any of our expat friends who remain in Brussels for the holidays, to share our dinner with us. This has become one of my favourite new Christmas traditions.

Over the years we’ve had fellow Canadians (including our sister who was able to join us from Canada last year), an Indian, a Brazilian and a Montenegrin. This year we will add a few Brits, a Scot and a Norwegian to the mix. The nicest thing about having other expats around during the holidays, is they bring with them their own Christmas traditions, to share with us.

Our expat Christmas traditions have become a fun blend of our old Canadian favourites and new Belgian and international experiences. We look forward to maintaining our newfound expat traditions for many years to come.

What are your favourite expat Christmas traditions? Have you kept your home country’s traditions or adopted new expat ones? Please share them in the comments below.

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Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
It's after Halloween so I can officially share Christmas Markets now right...? 🎄🎅 - 1 week ago


  1. Comment by Andrew

    Andrew December 20, 2010 at 12:43

    Great post! I do think it is interesting how people adapt their traditions to include new traditions, especially when it comes to the winter holidays.

    Just to add to your traditions, how about christmas markets and sausages? Oh, and the maple cookies? 🙂 These are becoming traditions now too!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison December 20, 2010 at 13:06

      Well I did mention the market but I left out the sausage. Speaking of which, we haven’t had any yet this year. Guess we better head back down there 🙂

  2. Comment by Nathalie

    Nathalie December 20, 2010 at 14:06

    Great article!

    I’ve only been back from Brussels for a week and I already miss the Christmas Market, the hot wine and the lights at the Grand Palace.

    Yesterday I got together with some Venezuelan friends here in Ohio and had some lovely Hallacas, the traditional Christmas venezuelan meal. It is only exclusive prepared and eaten this time of the year. …. Yumm!!

    In a few days I will go with my husband and kids to West Virginia and have traditional American Christmas usually with a spiral ham, the trimming and eggnog. Just getting together, sharing and laughing with the family … or friends is the best part.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison December 20, 2010 at 14:17

      Ooo, that sounds fabulous! Andrew will definitely envy the eggnog 🙂 He misses having it here. Maybe I should tell him he could make it from scratch 🙂

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  4. Comment by Louise

    Louise December 20, 2010 at 21:03

    I stick to a lot of the Danish traditions, when it comes to the decoration part, meaning lots of nature in all kinds of decorations along with lots of candles. We have real candles on the Christmas tree for instance. Regarding food, I’m less traditional. At least, I have taken in a French tradition that I will never let go off again: Fois gras and champagne for aperitif. Uhm – I love it!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison December 20, 2010 at 22:08

      I love candles and always have lots around during the holidays. I’ve always been a bit nervous with them around the tree though. As for the French tradition… I’ve adopted that one too 🙂 Yum!

  5. Comment by Orangesplaash

    Orangesplaash December 21, 2010 at 10:31

    Wow, I love the Christmas tree – it’s gorgeous. Like you said, I completely agree that technology is an expat’s best friend. Ohh,what would I do without VOIP. I also believe that it is when you make an attempt to understand the other culture, your understanding of your own culture increases tremendously.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison December 21, 2010 at 11:18

      That’s very true! It’s a fine balance I think to maintain a sense of where you came from while also adapting to your new environment. I think finding that balance of new and old traditions during the holidays makes them even more special.

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