What I've Learned about Rituals from Raising a Cross Cultural Kid

Guest blog by Sarah Van Wyke, Director of Social and Operations at The Expat Kids Club

I am the mother of a cross cultural kid. A CCK is “a person who has lived in—or meaningfully interacted with—two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.” She’s only 2, so not exactly out of her developmental years yet. But seeing as I’ll always be American and her dad will always be Dutch, it’s safe to say she will meaningfully interact with those two cultures (and hopefully more!) her whole life.

It’s easy to forget how special it is to raise a CCK or TCK. Our reality is just going about our daily lives, fluctuating between Dutch and English, FaceTiming with family, trying to navigate the postal service and often failing. This our normal. The holiday season tends to wake me up to the privilege and responsibility of raising my CCK. Our season lasts a good 6 weeks - starting with the arrival of Sinterklaas, moving through American Thanksgiving, the departure of Sinterklaas (pakjesavond), my daughter’s birthday, Christmas, and ending with New Years. That’s a lot of celebrating, a lot of presents, and a LOT of rituals and traditions.

Rituals can be anything really, they vary between families and cultures. In the end, rituals can be a shepherd’s hook when we’re feeling adrift. They are something tangible that engage our senses and trigger memories. Something as simple as going through the steps of making coffee in the morning can bring us back to center when we’re tired and a long day looms ahead. During the holidays, when I may be feeling disconnected from my family and my roots, rituals can be a great way to bring myself and my family back to that space, even though I often can’t be there physically. Some of my holiday traditions that help me to feel at home (that my husband enthusiastically embraces thankfully!) are making my mom’s coffee cake to eat while opening presents Christmas morning, having A Christmas Story playing non stop on Christmas day, and hanging up ornaments my mom has bought me every year since I was born. 

But living the expat life means having to be flexible with some of the time honored traditions. For example, we now celebrate Thanksgiving the weekend after everyone in American (because nobody’s taking a random Thursday in November off work!), we spend the night and let the kids put their shoes out for Sinterklaas before bed, because the two holidays overlap. Christmas Day is a quiet one with just me, my husband, and my daughter (versus the spending it with my huge family back in the States). We don’t put our Christmas decorations up until after Sinterklaas ends, rather than the day after Thanksgiving. This one was tough for me!

Raising a CCK during the holiday season tends to amp up my need for ritual and tradition. I feel pressure sometimes to make every moment the most memorable moment of the season for her. I want her to enjoy Sinterklaas, I want her to love Thanksgiving as much as I do, I want her to feel the Christmas magic the minute that tree gets decorated. But of course this isn’t sustainable. Not every moment can be memorable, and not every tradition will be important to her. And what’s more, it is a LOT of work to pull off. What is the point, if we go through the motions, but everyone is stressed and can’t wait to sleep on January 2nd? I don’t want to disappear from her holiday memories because I was too busy facilitating them for her.

Maya Angelou wrote “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I try to make this my mantra during the holiday season (I guess that’s another ritual!). My daughter, and my husband, will remember how they felt during the holidays, much more than how that coffee cake tasted, or how much they loved that present that one year. My biggest hope, bigger than sharing my rituals and culture with my daughter, is that she remembers this time as feeling loved and cared for by her Mama and Papa. 

We would love to hear all about you use use rituals to ground your family during a relocation, especially during the holidays. Tell us in the comments! And don’t forget to follow us on Instagram to hear from our followers on how they incorporate rituals into their daily expat lives.