Padraig Belton   22 December 2017


Elena Suhoviy makes a point of 'baffling and delighting' friends with Ukrainian Christmas customs. 

Sometimes you find yourself celebrating Christmas somewhere new.  

But people far from home still find ways to carry on their Christmas customs in a different country. 

"There is a Malawian tradition at Christmas of cooking a big plate of rice-based stew and eating from the same plate, as well as traditional music," says Sarah Amani, a mental health nurse who works in Oxford and is originally from Malawi. 

She has kept this tradition up in Oxford, she says. 

Meanwhile Leann O'Kasi, who is Irish-Nigerian, says a Nigerian Christmas is not very different.  

"Much the same: it's jollof rice [rice cooked with tomatoes and spices] and chicken," she says.

Herring and turkey 

On the other hand, Diana Bruk, born in St Petersburg in Russia, moved with her family to New York and yearned for an American Christmas. 

Her parents' enthusiasm for this was slightly less. 

"My attempts to cook a 'real American Christmas dinner' were continuously foiled," she says. 

"No matter how vigilant I was, beets would find their way into every salad, my ban on herring and onion was never observed, and the turkey, no matter how I basted it, stubbornly tasted Russian," she says. 

Her luck didn't improve away from the dining table, either. 

"I was not allowed to leave cookies out for Santa, because my mother thought it was a stupid tradition that would invite infestations of roaches and rats," she adds. 

A legacy of the Soviet Union, she says, is that New Year's Eve is the more important holiday for many Russians. Many Russians, wherever they live, mark the evening in the same way, she says. 

"You make a salad called olivye, and at midnight you put on the Putin speech," explains Miss Bruk.  

And "while he blathers on about what a great year we've had, you make wishes on a piece of paper, burn it, throw the ashes into a flute of champagne, and drink it to make it come true," she adds. 

Baffling locals 

Eleonora Suhoviy moved to the UK from western Ukraine's city of Lviv. 

In the UK, she has made a personal project of "baffling and delighting participants from Britain, South Africa and Norway" with Ukrainian Christmas customs.

 Many traditional games for Christmas are "steeped in history, to know what your fate will be, or who will be your husband," she explains. 

They "involve candles, mirrors, spells, flour being dripped on to your head," she says. 

Miss Suhoviy also has organised her British and international friends into cooking traditional Ukrainian foods. "The 12 dishes are very specific, and must include kutia!" she explains. 

Kutia is the first of the 12 dishes served in a Ukrainian Christmas Eve supper. It contains wheatberries, poppy seeds, and honey, and everyone present must have at least a spoonful. 

Formerly a head of household would use the dish to tell if the next year's harvest would be plentiful, and to bargain with the forces of nature, she explains.

Polish rollmops

Rollmops are a staple of the Polish Christmas Eve dinner. 

Pick and mix 

Many people find themselves mixing bits of Christmas from home with ingredients from where they are living now. 

Poles living in Northern Ireland, for instance often combine their local Christmas Eve foods - fish soup if they are from Silesia in Poland's southwest, or 12 dishes in central Poland - with customs from their new home, like Christmas crackers. 

"Especially those with children, this is more important to them, to get them accustomed to the local tradition of Christmas, not only to have them spend it in the Polish way," says Marta Kempny, an anthropologist from Poland working at Queen's University Belfast. 

Like Ukrainians, Poles begin their Christmas celebrations on Christmas Eve, when the first star appears. 

This presents some difficulty in Northern Ireland, where there is often rain, laughs Dr Kempny. 

Polish Christmas foods include sauerkraut dishes and paluszki dumplings, which are finger-shaped and made with poppies.

A decade ago, Poles in Northern Ireland would have had these sent from home, but now there are concentrations of Polish shops nearby, she says.  

These dot South Belfast, which has an international flair, and also East Belfast, which is historically Protestant and working-class but where there is surplus housing and low rents. 

This coming Christmas will be Dr Kempny's first as parent.  She has not yet decided how she will combine Polish and Northern Irish traditions, she says. 

But she decided to name her 11-month-old baby Daniel "because it's the same in English and Polish," she explains. 

When home moves 

And sometimes, home moves while you are away.

Joelle Chartouni

Joelle Chartouni, from Lebanon, says her Christmas holidays away from her family in Lebanon 'were slightly hard ... the first few times'. This year she's spending the holiday with her sister - who's in Corsica. 

Joelle Chartouni, who is from Lebanon and lives in London, says her Christmas holidays "were slightly hard being away from my mum the first few times". 

Then her mother died.  She was left feeling "not so sure where home Christmas is any more". 

But recently and more happily, she explains, "now it's with my sister, though we live in different countries, and it's been moving around!" 

This year, her sister is living in Corsica.  Much sunnier than London. 

Only connect

Cities in particular are large gathering points of people far away from home at Christmas. 

People born overseas, for example, make up 41 per cent of inner London's population, says the University of Oxford's Migration Observatory. But they are only 13.5 per cent of the UK as a whole. 

That's why Juliet Potter, a single parent in Sydney, set up a website that's been dubbed "Tinder for Christmas" - Orphan Christmas.

It encourages newcomers in a city to spend Christmas with each other, rather than on their own.

She set up the site after she'd spent Christmas on her own in the Australian city because her son was in hospital.  

Since then she has expanded it to the UK and to other countries. 

Meanwhile in London a Turkish restaurant called Shish last year put a sign its window saying "No one eats alone on a Christmas Day!" 

The owner, Serdar Kigili, decided to offer a free three-course meal to those on their own after an elderly local woman had mentioned to him that she was spending Christmas alone. 

She reminded Mr Kigili of his own mother, who lives in Turkey and whom he had not seen in five years. 

So up went the sign, which read: "Any homeless or elderly are welcomed." 

An increasingly international Christmas 

Migration is making the world smaller.  The number of people living in a country other than where they were born reached 244 million in 2015 worldwide. 

This is 41 per cent more compared with in 2000, says the UN Population Division

And with more people spending Christmas away from home, the world will see more mingling of Christmas traditions. 

So if you find yourself offered paluszki with your jollof rice, you will have people like Miss O'Kasi and Daniel to thank.

What mix and match Christmas customs do you enjoy? Tell us about them in the comments below, or on our Facebook page!