For my daughter's first Halloween in Spain, I dressed her up as Minnie Mouse and took her to a small local event hosted by another Spanish/American couple. She was absolutely adorable. Too adorable, in fact. All – and I mean every single one – of the other children were dressed as witches, skeletons, vampires, etc. Clearly, I had missed the memo that, in Spain – where Halloween is only just starting to catch on – “scary” costumes are de rigueur for even the youngest children.
All at once, I felt embarrassed, sad, and slightly superior. Embarrassed because it was obvious that the other parents and children were clearly perplexed that my child was dressed so “inappropriately”. Sad because I was faced with a Halloween that only vaguely resembled the holiday I have loved all my life. And slightly superior because, I told myself sulkily, the traditions of the American Halloween are more established and, therefore, better.
Nostalgia had clearly gotten the better of me, and it's something I have struggled with at this time of year in every country I've lived as an expat/immigrant. For me, Halloween is not only my favorite holiday, it's also the one that kicks off the entire autumn and winter holiday season. It is also the time when I begin to feel the most disconnected from my native country and its traditions as I experienced them growing up.
Especially here in Sweden, where the beautiful display of autumn colors and the increasingly cold weather are so like what I experienced in my early childhood, this time of year is bittersweet. As Halloween passes and the mood centers on Thanksgiving, which in turn dissolves into Christmas and New Year, I vacillate between feelings of festive joy and restless longing. The beauty of discovering new traditions and blending them with familiar ones is tinged at times with a realization that it comes at the expense of distance from dear family and friends.
Even Thanksgiving, which had previously been my least favorite holiday, has taken on a new importance in the years that we've lived abroad. By my teenage years, I viewed Thanksgiving as a holiday riddled with a disturbing backstory and characterized by stiff and formal meals followed by falling asleep on the sofa while watching the boring but obligatory Dallas Cowboys football game.
As an American far from home, Thanksgiving has become an important symbol not only of gratitude, but also of our bond with the United States and our loved ones there. By combining traditional dishes and ingredients with ones from Spain and now Sweden, we have even created a meal that I personally enjoy more than the one I grew up with.
The Macy's Thanksgiving parade in New York. Photo: Bryan R. Smith/AP
This fusing of holiday traditions has always been an important part of making the most of our bicultural marriage, and it's become even more important here in Sweden where neither of us has roots, but where our children are now experiencing their most formative and memorable years. It's one of the challenges we face as immigrants: how do we keep our own culture and traditions alive for ourselves and our children while also opening ourselves up fully to the culture and traditions of our adopted country?
Undoubtedly, there are aspects to this challenge that make it as fun and interesting as it can be emotionally-fraught. Just as I quickly learned to love the Spanish New Year tradition of consuming one large grape for each of the 12 chimes of the clock at midnight on January 1 (which will bring you good luck presuming you don't choke), I am quickly becoming a devotee of the interior lighting spectacle that is Christmastime in Sweden.
Since the after-Christmas sales last year, I have been slowly building up our personal stock of Advent lights and paper stars in preparation for our second Christmas in Sweden. Woefully unaware and unprepared last year, I spent the deepest, darkest months of Swedish winter staring mournfully out of our poorly-lit windows into the splendor shining from the windows of our neighbors. It made me realize just how beautiful and important this tradition is in this country, and it's one that I am excited to embrace.
I keep reminding myself that it is this sense of embracing what we as a family find beautiful and meaningful that is most important, especially at this time of year. Whether the tradition is distinctly American, Spanish, Swedish, or a fusion of all three doesn't really matter. By embracing our collective and diverse experiences, we are creating something special and unique to us and providing our children with their own special memories.
Ultimately, I realize that the value of holiday nostalgia is not so much in figuratively finding my way back home, but in truly recognizing how important it is to make my family's home meaningful and special in the present.
Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.
Read more from her family column on The Local here.