Christmas Traditions, Old & New (Plus Some Recipes)
I’m sitting at our kitchen counter in the wee hours of the morning, which really aren’t all that “wee” for us because we’re always up early. Everyone else is still asleep though, so I’m enjoying the quiet. I can hear the occasional animal noise from the community paired with night time bug noises. The air coming through the windows is cool, something I love so much after months of hot nights.
We’re spending this Christmas in Haiti, and while I sometimes still feel that pull to be back in Canada, now that the kids are older I realize that this is their home, and it’s good to be home for Christmas. Yes, I miss family and all the things we would normally do while there (snow!), but as a family we’re forging new traditions here, and making memories that our kids will carry with them for life.
I think living abroad, whether it’s as a missionary or as an expat in general, is hardest during the holidays. It’s that reminder that things are not what you are used to, and you need to adapt and make the best of what you have or are living in. I’m thankful that over the years we’ve been able to establish a life here in Haiti that we truly love, and that feels like home to us. We have a place to live that is comfortable and restful, especially when things outside our gate are so different from our home culture.
Growing up my family Christmas traditions shifted as we got older and our family priorities changed. There were some constants though. We always got our Christmas tree two Saturdays before Christmas, and decorated it the same day. There were always lots of decorations in our house. When I was younger Christmas Eve was spent with my mom’s side of the family, and Christmas day after we had done our own thing as a little family, was spent with my Dad’s side of the family. Eventually as everyone’s families got bigger and kids started having kids, those celebrations changed, but it was always about being with family. Our family always got up early, opened stockings and then gifts, and then had breakfast. Turkey has always been the big Christmas dinner. My mom always makes shortbread and a few other treats that she mixes new ones in with. As we got older we started going to church on Christmas Eve, and having a nice candle lit dinner together before or after, depending on the time of the service.
Chris and I spent our first couple of Christmases with family either in BC or in Washington. Once we brought Olivia home we were committed to having at least one of us always with her in Haiti until our adoption was completed, so that meant no family vacations, and no leaving for Christmas. Thankfully family came to us those first couple of years. We did three more Christmases in Canada after that, and now we’re going on Christmas #4 in Haiti as a family of 4. Would we enjoy being with family at this time of year, and could we travel? Yes. But, when we look at the expense, the amount of winter driving we’d have to do to see everyone, and the fact that we pay as much to go in the winter as we do in the summer and we’re limited in time, it seems like a better choice to put that funding into a 6 week summer vacation where we can see everyone and also get out and go camping with our kids. So, we stay in Haiti, and that’s meant creating new traditions with our kids and Haiti family.
So, what have we kept, and what has been created for our little family around the holidays?
There are some things that take place every year here. On a work level, we always work until the week before Christmas, and the last Friday is our staff Christmas party. Chris and I spend time earlier in the week making sure all the accounting and salary info is caught up, then we start working on putting together staff bonuses and vacation pay. Haiti has a law that all regular employees are entitled to a 13th month of salary, or a month bonus, at some point during the year. We like to do it right at the end of the year, because we take about two weeks off for the holidays, so that paired with whatever wages are owed for the last week or two of work, and two weeks of vacation pay is a big Christmas gift to our staff. Haitians don’t celebrate Christmas in the same way that we do, but they do give gifts, so some of the funds will go to that and having a bigger meals with friends and family, but New Years day is the really big celebration because it also marks Haiti’s Independence day. Our staff party always has food. I made pizza a couple of years ago in an effort to do the cooking myself and give Yonese the day to enjoy with the rest of the staff, and it was a big hit, so that’s become part of our staff party tradition. We play games and use the prizes from those games as our gifts to staff, so everyone goes home on a happy note.
Our kids finish school every year the day before our last day of work, and they have their Christmas program the Friday night, so between that and the staff party all in one day, it’s busy, but fun. This year Alex’s class was given the job of serving cookies to everyone, and let me tell you, that kid rocked his job. He was very enthusiastic and handsome :)
They chose two kids from each class to be in the choir or participate in the play, and because Olivia has had a key role in the past this year she got to enjoy watching it along with the rest of us.
Gah! Olivia loves dressing up, but this was the first time as an older kid that Alex got special clothes and it was like he turned into a little Old Navy model. His sister was right there with him. Case in point…
Because we get two or so weeks off as a family, we try to really enjoy the time together. Our summer holidays are filled with international travel, which is fun, but can also be tiring. It’s nice to have time where we can just sleep in, relax, go slow, and have fun together. Last year, because we had just moved, we basically collapsed and recuperated for two weeks. I think we were also the only ones here from our local missionary group, so it was a very quiet Christmas.
This year, only a small group of our friends have left, so we’re making a point of spending time with friends as much as possible, and balancing that with good time at home.
I always try to do some Christmas baking but definitely don’t go to the level that I probably would if we were living in Canada. Sugar cookies and gingersnaps are always on the list, and then I usually add some other cookie or treat in there. Sometimes it’s shortbread, sometimes it’s another thing. This year I tried a new peppermint truffle cookie that was so yummy that they’re already all gone. Alex’s one request for something he wanted to do this Christmas was to make gingerbread men, which we hadn’t done before. On Tuesday I mixed up the dough, we cut them and baked them, then decorated. The kids loved it, I made it out alive ;)
We added a new baking tradition this year. We have a tree called a rum berry, that gives fruit the size and shape of an olive, but they’re dark purple. I made jam with a bunch of them back in September, but when we still had more coming Chris decided to not let them go to waste and found a recipe for a rum berry liqueur. He basically took a giant jar and put the pitted rum berries, raisins, prunes, vanilla beans, sugar and some spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, and added two bottles of rum to it all. We let it sit for three months so the flavors could meld together. When he was mixing it he commented on the fact that it would be a shame to waste the fruit when it was time to drain it, and I told him that we didn’t have to since my grandma always made fruitcake with candied fruit she soaked in rum for a couple days. I figured 3 months would be better, right? Last Thursday he cracked open the jar, drained the fruit off, and on Saturday I made fruitcake. Alex and I went to the store and bought maraschino cherries, pineapple and cashews (couldn’t find almonds) and I made a triple batch of dark fruit cake with everything. You guys, this stuff is ridiculously good! The tree gives fruit twice a year, so we might be making this ahead of time and freezing it… ;) My Granny’s fruitcake was always so good, so it’s fun for me to carry on the tradition with a Haiti twist to it.
One tradition that we’ve added in the past few years is that we take the kids down to one of the local resorts one evening in the days leading up to Christmas. If we’re going to go out for a nicer dinner, this is where we go, and about 4 years ago they started lighting up a whole bunch of trees on the property. Not much gets Christmas lights outside of our house in our area, so it’s fun to go there and see a bit of Christmas. This year we’re getting together with friends and have decided to go get bbq chicken in town and take it to the picnic area there, eat, then go for drinks and let the kids play on the play ground. We call it cheap and fun!
On Christmas Eve we’ve changed things up a bit too. Haitian churches don’t do the same kind of Christmas Eve service that we’re used to. It’s more like a talent show, so we don’t go and choose to spend the time at home as a family. Rather than a big dinner we started making pizza a few years ago, and we hang out and watch a Christmas movie together. This is something we do about once a month as a family as a bit of a special thing since there aren’t a lot of entertainment options here, so it’s something we look forward to.
One tradition that we’ve kept from my family is that on Christmas Eve the kids get to open one gift, and it’s always pajamas. What we’ve added to it is that they also get a new book. Reading is a big thing for our family and something that’s part of the kids bedtime routine, so new books are always exciting. It’s fun to snuggle up with the kids on Christmas Eve in their new pj’s and read them a new story.
We don’t do Santa with our kids because we live in a place where Santa doesn’t come to every home, so we didn’t want to create something that would be hard to explain. Why does Santa come to our house but no one else’s? So, we skip that and talk about Santa openly as a fun thing, and that it celebrates the spirit of giving at Christmas.
We do do stockings, so after the kids go to bed and Chris and I are on our way there I go and stuff the stockings. Getting to this point for me felt like growing up. I know that’s funny, but my Mom is always the stocking stuffer, except for me when I’m there and I do hers, so it felt like a right of passage when I started doing this for our family. And, as a window into missionary life, I buy most of our stocking stuffers, and even about half of our Christmas gifts in July when we’re back on vacation. That might seem like a lot of planning, which it can be, but it has it’s perks. One is that I don’t have this mad rush to get stuff, in a place where the options are limited. The other is that I can buy stuff for the kids that is useable in Haiti where we have shorts weather year round. I typically stock up on flip flops and summer clothes while we’re on vacation, and save some of those for Christmas gifts for the kids. I’ve learned that by December the flip flops they got in the summer are probably trashed, and a bunch of their shirts have stains on them, so it’s a nice little boost to their wardrobes.
On Christmas morning my family always woke up and opened stockings, then gifts, and then ate breakfast. That’s the tradition that we’ve carried on with our kids. Chris’ family typically took a break between stockings and gifts for a light breakfast, but with young kids it’s easier to get all the gift opening out of the way. I value my sanity! This year we’ve established a new rule called “you aren’t allowed out of your room until it’s starting to get light out” because last year we told them that when they woke up they needed to come in and snuggle with us. We weren’t counting on it happening at 4 am, and trust me, no one was going back to sleep!
Both our families have always had a big turkey dinner on Christmas day, and that was something that I ached for in my need to have some sense of normalcy here in Haiti. I remember the first Christmas that we spent here. My parents and brother were flying in, and had to deal with a two day delay because of a snow storm on the West Coast. They finally arrived Christmas day and we celebrated everything a day later than planned. I was so excited because I was able to find a turkey in one of our local stores. This was before we started doing monthly grocery shops in Port au Prince, so this was a BIG deal. It was my first turkey dinner that I cooked by myself.
Turkeys can be expensive here, in the range of about $50 for a 15lb bird, but it’s a splurge we make every Christmas so we can have a nice Christmas dinner. This year I was traveling through the US the week of American Thanksgiving, and I was able to buy a BIG frozen turkey, which is just another window into missionary/expat life. We bring frozen meat and food of all kinds back in our luggage. The best part was that I paid $15 for a 22lb turkey. I also bought a big cooler bag, stuck that sucker inside, then put the whole thing in the hotel fridge, and then popped it in my carry on the next day. It arrived home still completely frozen :)
One thing I started doing several years ago was brining my turkey. Once you brine you can’t go back! I use the Pioneer Woman’s Favorite Turkey Brine. It’s so good. As I type this our turkey is defrosting and the brine is ready and waiting. I normally wouldn’t brine until tomorrow morning, but because it’s a big turkey and we’re going to eat in the early afternoon on Christmas day I need to get it prepped and stuffed tomorrow night so I can put it right in the oven when we get up.
I know some people cook an unstuffed turkey and do stuffing on the side, but I am not one of them. I use my Granny’s Stuffing recipe, which always gets rave reviews. As I mentioned in the recipe, I have to do some substitutes, also part of missionary/expat life. We can occasionally get celery here, but only in Port au Prince and it’s imported, so we don’t buy it. Chris also hates it, so there’s that. Instead I often use either parsley or watercress. Both are good and add a bit of color. I also add dried cranberries at Christmas and it gives a sweet and savory flavor that is amazing. I’ve literally made this for a Christmas party in a church kitchen and had staff stopping by to see what I was cooking because it smelled so good.
One thing I started doing for Christmas dinner when I can, is making homemade cranberry sauce. I was able to buy fresh cranberries while I was away, freeze them in the hotel fridge overnight, then pack them with the turkey and put them in our freezer when I got back. Homemade cranberry sauce is amazing and so easy to make. Chris would eat any cranberry sauce right out of the can if I let him, and he does actually do this when I find it or my Mom buys him a stash of it, but this stuff is off limits until Christmas day!
1 c. sugar
1 c. water (you can do half water and half orange juice to add some special flavor)
1 12 oz pk fresh or frozen cranberries
Optional add-ins: orange zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, chopped pecans.
- Mix water and sugar in a pot and bring to a boil.
- Add cranberries to water and sugar and cook until cranberries pop. Stir occasionally on medium to low heat. Sauce will start to thicken on as it cooks.
- When all the berries have popped and things are starting to thicken turn off heat and mix in any add-ins at this point. If using cinnamon or nutmeg start with just a pinch and taste then adjust. Let cool on the stove. Transfer to a fridge container and cool. Sauce will thicken up as it cools. Serve!
**I added a couple tablespoons of orange zest at the end, and about 1/2 tsp of cinnamon. You will probably want to double this because it’s that good!
This year for Christmas dinner we’ve invited some friends to join us. Last year was the first Christmas we were completely on our own, and it was fine, but because we have friends in country this year we wanted to share the day with them. We’re looking forward to the time together and having a relaxing afternoon/evening.
So that’s our Christmas time here in Haiti. We’ve been having fun hanging out, reading, doing puzzles, playing video games and visiting with friends so far. There’s an amazing cool breeze blowing today, so even though the sun is out it feels like fall/winter, which makes my heart happy.
I have a bunch of house pictures to share because we’ve been living here for a year now and I still haven’t given you a tour yet. My mom was begging me for pictures, so I figured doing a holiday house tour kills two birds with one stone. I’ll try to get those up in the next week. I have a lot of important holidaying to do :)
Merry Christmas from our family to yours!