When we moved to Albania we tried to take our holiday traditions with us. It was hard. Live Christmas trees were impossible to come by when we first arrived so we substituted a very pretty pre-lit artificial tree instead. While beautiful, it didn't exude that piney smell that I associate with the holiday. And wreaths? Unless they were white or bright blue plastic, they were just as non-existant. We still decorated our house but the decorations, due to the awkward layout of our house, were limited to our representational spaces which we only used when we had official guests. We strung twinkling white icicle lights along out balconies but somehow their festive lights seemed just wrong on the evenings that the rest of the neighborhood was in the midst of a blackout. We still hosted a big party with my favorite foods, or the closest substitutions I could find but it wasn't quite the same. Our guests included a few friends but mostly official work contacts who attended out of obligation rather than the love of the holiday season. I did however, get to share my love of the holiday and our family traditions with a local Albanian lifestyle magazine one year. We took to traveling over the holiday instead and over three years visited friends in Italy, the Christmas markets of what should have been a snowy Bavaria (the temperatures were in the 60s and what little snow there was turned to puddles) and ate Indian food on Christmas day in Slovenia. These trips started a new family tradition for us and as much fun as they were, to me it felt like a little bit of Christmas was missing.
So needless to say I am super excited for our first Christmas in western Europe. Europeans know how to do the holiday right. They have the food, the traditions, the lights and so much more. Although we are still a couple of weeks away from the time I start my own decorating (the weekend after Thanksgiving and never a moment sooner), the city of Mons began hanging their lights this past week. They aren't lit yet but I am already giddy with excitement about the prospect of these lights right on our own street. But the single European holiday tradition I am looking forward to the most is their Christmas markets. Europeans don't shop at Walmart, the dollar store or (shudder) the Christmas Tree Shops for their decorations and gifts. No sireee. They go to their local Christmas markets and between the end of November and Christmas Eve, it seems like every town has one. Big, small or somewhere in between, the premise is the same. Plazas, squares and just about any available outdoor space are converted into festive marketplaces. There is food, drink and vendors selling locally made crafts, decorations and gifts. Many times there are live nativity scenes as well as live entertainment as well. We've visited several markets during earlier travels but this year we're going to make it to many more.
Germany is the gold standard when it comes to Christmas markets and we are planning at least one trip over the border this season. We've already planned a family trip to England to experience a Dickens themed market and I'm heading to Strasbourg, France to visit one of the oldest markets in Europe. There are also markets closer to home in the Netherlands and right here in Belgium so our options are really endless. Even Mons has a market that I am sure we will visit since it will literally be in our backyard. And our NATO community is hosting their share of markets bringing a piece of their home countries right here to Mons. Yesterday we attended ones sponsored by both Norway and Canada and Great Britain and Italy have ones planned as well.
I love the fact that there really isn't a shortage of holiday spirit in the community right now. The hard part is deciding which ones to attend. Can we do them all? Not this year but we have three Christmases in Belgium to give it our best shot. Ready, set, go!