Spending the Holidays So Far From Home

One of the most difficult parts of living abroad for a year has been spending the holidays so far from my family and my friends. On an ordinary day, when there is lesson planning to do, crocheting to learn, and soccer to play, it is easy to forget how much I miss the beautiful city of Houston. But, for example, when Thanksgiving passes for the first time without much fanfare, the absence of loved ones nearby hits harder.

And yet, despite that, I have gotten to participate in new traditions with new friends who have done absolutely everything to make sure this holiday season is properly celebrated.

Starting with Halloween, I wanted to fully bring the spirit of candy, costumes, and creepiness into the classroom. I planned a lesson, the first of many that I would get to lead on my own, and it was a tremendous success (by my own internal standards of how the class reacts to the content and how effective the balance is between information and interaction). I asked the students to dress up in costumes when it came time for my lesson with their class, and I was pleasantly surprised as they arrived in their creative outfits.

These are just some of the few classes that dressed up in preparation for the Halloween lesson. I naturally plied them with Halloween candy to reward them for their participation, but hey, eating candy is an important part of the Halloween experience! The main feature of the lesson, in addition to funny Halloween YouTube videos, was doing a themed Scattergories game with the students. For those who don’t know the rules, there are categories of words listed on a worksheet and the goal is to put a word down for every category that starts with the chosen letter for that round. I put them into teams, set a timer, and allow their natural competitiveness to take over. While I missed the tradition of trick-or-treating, I was glad to be able to share in the laughter that accompanied silly games and sugar highs.

For Thanksgiving, I planned another themed lesson with the focus being a Jeopardy game composed of American Thanksgiving trivia questions. I indulged my festive nature by encouraging students to decorate hand turkeys and to write letters of gratitude to their loved ones. In creating lessons like these, I am reminded to think deeper about the meaning of Thanksgiving rather than just eating large amounts of food and watching football. It’s about being with family and appreciating all that we have in our lives, because even when things seem bleak or uninspired, there are still things in life to be grateful for. My wonderful family also organized a Zoom Thanksgiving call to bring us together across state lines and even country borders, bringing some semblance of normal to my Thanksgiving dinner.

The Czech Fulbright Commission also organized a brilliant meetup for all of the Fulbright recipients to come together in Prague the day after Thanksgiving for workshops and a nice Thanksgiving dinner, which I didn’t realize I necessarily wanted or needed until I was there in the moment. We all stayed in a botel, a boat converted into a hotel, which was certainly a first for me and exchanged gifts for our Fulbright Secret Santa. These smaller moments help to meet my rather mercurial need for American traditions.

For Christmas, I intend to celebrate at home with my family in Houston, but in the weeks leading up to it, I have been missing the colossal American Christmas consumerist complex. While I understand that we tend to spend too much on decorations and gifts and parties and lights, I still enjoy being surrounded by the joyful holiday spirit that refuses to let you travel two steps without being pleasantly assaulted by Christmas carols, trees, wreaths, and all that accompanies Christmas time.

But, at the same time, it has been really nice to understand and appreciate how other countries and cultures celebrate Christmas in their own unique ways. For example, I was invited to come participate in the Czech Mikulaš tradition on December 5. On this evening, people dress up as demons and angels and venture out into their respective towns. Parents invite these groups to come to their house and speak to their children. It is a little reminiscent of the idea of Elf on the Shelf: the demons are there to make sure that the kids do not misbehave in the coming year lest they be dragged off to hell. For about two and a half hours, we walked through the streets of Sudomeřice, often frightening children to tears, but there were also very sweet moments of children saying poems or singing carols to send the demons away and Mikulaš coming to the rescue with gifts as well. It was a thoroughly unique custom that I had never heard about before coming here!

I have also gotten to make and decorate traditional Czech Christmas cookies, spending an entire day with one of the English teachers, Petra, and her daughter, Tereza. They patiently showed me how to make certain shapes or use particular molds while traditional Czech carols set the mood in the background.

Spending much of the holiday season in another country is difficult, but the warmth and hospitality I have experienced here has kept my spirits lifted. I’m looking forward to spending Christmas with my family, and returning in time to ring in the New Year in the Czech Republic!

See you in the next one.

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