Tag Archives: Germany

Which tradition do you maintain around Christmas?

This time of the year many multicultural families struggle with finding a compromise: which tradition to maintain around Christmas, especially when you partner is used to other customs and you are living in a place where “things are done differently” from what you were used to when you were a child.

I must confess that it would never have crossed my mind to actually start doing anything related to Christmas already mid November before moving to the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, the most important celebration during this part of the year is Sinterklaas, not Christmas. And it starts with his arrival mid November, and goes on with his visits all over the country during the following weeks, until Pakjesavond on December the 5th.

In our family we decided to adopt this tradition as our aim is to integrate and embrace the culture of our host country. But we also wanted to maintain some of the traditions we liked from our childhood. So we ended up practically celebrating this season from mid November until the 6th of January. – It’s a long time…

So, every year we are excited upon Sinterklaas’ arrival, and our children put their shoes near the chimney, hoping that some of the (Zwarte) Pieten will fill them over night with pepernoten or other delicacies, sometimes small cadautjes. – Even though they know about this tradition, our children love to keep up the magic and celebrate it with the same enthusiasm.

English: boterletter sinterklaas dutch traditi...

As we also want to keep some of the traditions my husband and I know and cherish from our childhood, we like to put up the Adventskalender. Each child usually gets one and opens a door every day starting from December 1rst.

40px|border|Flag Deutsch: Adventszeit in Luzer...

40px|border|Flag Deutsch: Adventszeit in Luzern: Adventskalender bei der Reussbrücke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These two traditions are quite similar, both, the shoes and the advent calendar will give our children a surprise in the morning. – Will the shoe be filled? What am I going to receive or read (if it’s not a calendar filled with toys, sweets etc.) in my calendar? – If you combine them both, your children will get two “surprises” per day until Pakjesavond, and then carry on with the Advents calendar until Christmas.

We will also celebrate Christmas on the 24th (and 25th-26th December), and, of course, La Befana or Heilige Dreikönige on the 6th of January.

The historical center of Schöckingen in Baden-...

The historical center of Schöckingen in Baden-Württemberg in Germany, with christmas illuminations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usually our children receive the bigger presents at Sinterklaas and this for very obvious reasons: we usually meet with our families at Christmas, which involves a lot of travelling, so we soon decided not to overload our car for those days and decided to offer our children the bigger presents at Sinterklaas. This give them the opportunity to already play with them before Christmas. At Christmas then, they receive books, clothes or items they “need” – which makes much more sense to me and my husband, and is more the way I celebrated Christmas as a child.

As for the celebration of Sinterklaas, whose German/Swiss/Austrian equivalent Sankt Nikolaus is celebrated on the 6th, we decided to shift the celebration to the 5th December, because this is the Pakjesavond celebrated here in the Netherlands.

Then we celebrate Christmas on the 24th and 25th with family, with a great combination of different traditional meals, depending on where and with whom we’re celebrating.

In January another celebration will close this festive season on the 6th of January. In Italy we would celebrate La Befana. When I was a child, this was the day when my fellow Italian friends would receive presents; Christmas was the day family would gather together and share festuous meals. The 6th of January was the day children would simmer with excitement – and a bit of fear as la Befana would bring choal to those children who were not so kind… This makes this celebration very similar to Sankt Nikolaus/Sinterklaas in Germany, whose partner, the Knecht Ruprecht or Schmutzli in Switzerland, would give them a rod (and sometimes “hit” them… ) if they weren’t behaving well the weeks before…

On the 6th of January we now celebrate the Heilige Drei Könige, the Three Wise Men. We share a cake, the typical Dreikönigskuchen or Gallette des Rois – like our Belgian and French neighbours, but I still have my little Befana that hovers over the table that day…


What are the traditions you’re maintaining or adopting in your family?

If you want to make sure that you have a say and that your needs are met this year, take 20 minutes to watch my video on this topic (click on the picture):


@Ute’s International Lounge 2016


Our multicultural Christmas

Every country, every culture has it’s own ways to celebrate traditional festivities. Some families who live abroad adopt some of the local traditions and adapt them with those they know from their own childhood or from the other places they’ve lived.

Multicultural families need to agree not only on which festivities they want to celebrate but also on how to celebrate them. It’s a decision that involves extended family and friends too. This time of the year many internationally living families are getting inreasingly worried because they know that this topic will cause  friction with their loved ones.

I’ve experienced many changes in the way we celebrate Christmas in my family. My parents tried to maintain the German traditions while we were living in Italy. We had a Christmas wreath and an Adventskalender where we would open a “little door” every morning, starting from December 1rst until Christmas Eve, the 24th December, finding either little chocolates or some nice pictures (that would be illuminated when hold against a window or put in front of a candle or lamp), with the same effect of lighted windows you can find in Switzerland and Germany where houses are sometimes decorated like Advent calendars:

40px|border|Flag Deutsch: Adventszeit in Luzer...

Over the years we adopted more and more elements of the Italian way of celebrating Christmas: panettone and torrone became as standard as Lebkuchen and Weihnachtsplätzchen and we would also prefer having fish instead of meat for Christmas dinner. We would have a presepe set up in our living room, but also an Adventskranz (Christmas wreath). – In the last 20 years our family traditions became more and more multicultural, mixing mainly Italian, German and Swiss and, for my family here in the Netherlands, also Dutch habits. These don’t only imply food and decorations, but also celebrations throughout this Christmas season.

A month full of celebrations…

In many European countries Christmas is not the only festivity this time of the year. On December the 5th or 6th we celebrate Sankt Nikolaus in Germany, Switzerland etc., and on January the 6th we celebrate la Befana in Italy and Dreikönige in Switzerland, Germany, France etc. On the 6th December children receive tangerines, nuts and small presents for Sankt Nikolaus and usually a little Sankt Nikolaus Lebkuchen (gingerbread) in Germany and Switzerland, whereas in the Netherlands this is the most importan celebration (see below). On the 6th January kids get candy if they were “good”, and “coal” if they were “bad”.

My husband grew up in Switzerland, and he recalls that Christmas season started (more or less) when they had a Grittibänz at Saint Martin (November 11th). Then Saint Nicholas followed, Christmas cookies were baked and the first Christmas Markets were set up.

Deutsch: Hefeteigmann (Grittibänz), ungebacken...

Bildschirmfoto 2012-12-18 um 20.16.10


What to eat at Christmas…

Christmas is a time to celebrate thankfulness and togetherness and traditionally this is made by sharing meals. In Italy, Christmas is the most important celebration. Families would have a festive dinner on the vigilia di Natale (also called cenone di Natale) on Christmas Eve, December the 24th, where traditionally fish is served (after antipasti and primi). The birth of Jesus is celebrated on the 25th December by cooking festive meals that are followed by panettone (wich is similar to the German Weihnachtsstollen!), pandoro and torrone.

Bildschirmfoto 2012-12-18 um 20.16.10

In Germany, the traditional Christmas meal in my extended family was the Weihnachtsgans (goose; some prefer duck). My grandma served it with red cabbage and potatoe dumplings (find more recipes – in German! – here) after a soup, and Christmas cookies and Christstollen afterwards. – In our family in Italy, we used to have trout for lunch (after antipasti and primi) on the 25th, and some panettone, pandoro, torrone, Weihnachstplätzchen and Lebkuchen… Not all together, of course, but nicely devided over the Christmas holidays… Our Swiss family likes to celebrate with a raclette made with cheese, but meat is also a great alternative and this is very similar to the Dutch gourmetten.

When to open the presents…

In Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany, the presents are handed out on Christmas eve (24th December). The family gathers around or in front of the Christmas tree and sing songs. Children play the piano, the flute or other instruments, and only after having sung Christmas carols all together, everyone opens their presents. – In Italy, like in the US, it is custom to receive the presents on the 25th. – In many multicultural families it is very difficult to agree on the way to celebrate Christmas, on how and when to hand presents. Is Father Christmas bringing the presents or are they offered by family members? My husband and I agreed that as long as our children believe in Father Christmas (Weihnachtsmann), he would be the one bringing the presents – like Sinterklaas a few weeks earlier. In order to have a smooth transition to the “reality” and less magical Christmas, once they’ll know the truth about Father Christmas, we let extended family offer personal presents, so that our children can thank them for their gifts. This combination of traditions is an important aspect of these celebrations which really needs to be agreed with the whole extended family in order to avoid misunderstandings and frictions.

What we celebrate now

Since we live in the Netherlands, our festive time of the year starts when Sinterklaas arrives to the Netherlands in his stoomboot end of November, and ends the 6th of January with the Heilige Dreikönige and the Befana. – Our children follow the whole story about Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten and zetten de schoenen almost every evening. When Sinterklaas returns to Spain on the 6th December, we start decorating our home for Christmas with symbols.

It is common practice to celebrate the Advent (from Lat. adventus “coming”) by lighting one candle every Sunday before Christmas, to symbolize the time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ.

The readings for the first Sunday in Advent relate to the old testament patriarchs who were Christ’s ancestors, so some call the first advent candle that of hope. The readings for the second Sunday concern Christ’s birth in a manger and other prophecies, so the candle may be called of Bethlehem, the way or of the prophets. The third Sunday, Gaudete Sunday after the first word of the introit (Philippians 4:4), is celebrated with rose-colored vestments similar to Laetare Sunday at the middle point of Lent. The readings relate to St. John the Baptist, and the rose candle may be called of joy or of the shepherds.(…) The readings for the fourth Sunday relate to the annunciation of Christ’s birth, so the candle may be known as the Angel’s candle. (cfr. Wikipedia)


Once the advent wreath is in its place, we slowly add a few decorations like candles, the winter scenery our children decided to set up some years ago (and we add some details every year) and a presepe.

NLChristmas Presepe

How we are going to celebrate Christmas this year

This year we’ll celebrate Christmas in the Netherlands. The past we’ve mainly been travelling during this time and this year I really wanted to stay put.

This year, my parents will come to visit and we’re all very excited to have them! We have made plans about what we want to do  with them. Christmas, for me, means to spend time together, to focus on one another and enjoy the festive atmosphere. I like the smell of Christmas: the mix of cinnamon, candles, hot chocolate, sometimes Glühwein, Lebkuchen, roasted almonds and marroni. We’ll have a cenone di Natale with antipasti and fish, and on the 25th we’ll do like the locals and opt for gourmetten: similar to the Swiss raclette, fish, meat and vegetables are cooked on small stoves directly at the table and everyone can serve himself. Or we’ll make a fondue… Our children will open their presents on Christmas Eve and we’ll enjoy the erste Weihnachtsfeiertag by having a great festive lunch and going for a long walk maybe at the beach.



This year my children will get to decorate the Christmas tree with their grandpa. We’re all not getting any younger and I want this Christmas to be a time to build memories. Christmas is the time of the year where we not only are aware of the beginning of an era – a new year! – but also of the ending of one… For me Christmas is a mix of feelings: some sadness about the year that passed, friends who left, but also the excitement about the new. In German there is a nice word for it: Besinnlichkeit. In some countries people have just celebrated Thanksgiving and this spirit of being grateful and thankful for me is the spirit of Christmas that I want my children to associate with this time of the year. I think this is the heritage I want them to have. No matter how and where they’ll celebrate their future Christmases: I would love them to focus on this Christmas feeling.

Candle and decoration on a German Christmas tree

Candle and decoration on a German Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know it’s still a few more days until Christmas, but I’d like to wish you all a besinnliche Weihnachtszeit (“reflective Holiday Season”), un buon Natale, un joyeux Noël, en gueti Wienachtsziit, Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad, Boas Festas and een vrolijk Kerstfeest!

This post is part of the Multicultural Kid Blogs ‘Christmas In Different Lands’ series. Each day of December up until the 25th a different blogger around the world shares a part of their family Christmas.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-12-14 um 11.26.16

Flag facts

When we’re asked what flag is our country’s one, my children (and I) have a similar reaction like when someone asks us “where do you come from?”.

If you ask my three children which country or culture they feel more close, they would tell: Swiss, Dutch, German, Italian, British…

When my son was asked lately to indicate the flag of “his country” for a yearbook, he hesitated. It took him a few days to fill in the blank and he finally decided for the Tricolore, the Italian flag. In a restrictive way, our family has the deepest bonds with Italy (where I grew up and my son was born), Switzerland (where I’m born and my husband’s passport country) and Germany (my passport-country).

When fellow blogger Becky Mladic Morales from Multicultural Kid Blogs asked for contributions to her June MKB blogging carnival about the topic “flags”, I decided to write down a few informations about the three flags that are the most important for my family.

The Swiss flag

The Swiss flag is a red square with a bold, equilateral white cross in the center that does not extend to the edges of the flag. The dimentions of the cross are formally established since 1889: “The coat of arms of the federation is, within a red field, an upright white cross, whose [four] arms of equal length are one and a sixth times as long as they are wide.”

The origin of the flag is described in several medieval legends: it is first attested at the Battle of Laupen in 1339 where the troops of the Swiss Confederation used a white cross. The modern design of the white cross in a square red field was introduced only during the Napoleonic period. Its first use was in 1800 during the Hundred Days by general Niklaus Franz von Bachmann – he used it in his campaigns of 1800 and 1815 – and was introduced as official national flag in 1889 after having been introduced at the federal treaty of 1815.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-06-09 um 21.05.56

The shape of the cross in the Swiss flag is the base for the Red Cross symbol, a red cross on white background. It was “the original protection symbol declared at the first Geneva Convention, the Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Armies in the Field or 1864. According to the ICRC the design was based on the Swiss flag by reversing of the colours of that flag, in order to honor Switzerland, where the first Geneva Convention was held, and its inventor and co-founder, the Swiss Henry Dunant.” An interesting fact: no historic record has been found of an association of the Red Cross emblem with the flag of Switzerland earlier than 1906.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-06-09 um 21.15.32

The German flag

When Germany’s feudal states tried to unite in 1848, the first flag of Germany was adopted, even if the union didn’t occure. The flag consisted of equal widths of black, red and gold. Those three colours appeared also on the uniforms of the German soldiers during the Napoleonic wars. When the states finally united in 1871, the colors were replaced with black, white, and red until 1919, after the defeat in World War I (during the Weimarer Republik), when the German republic was declared, the black, red, and gold flag returned.

After a little more than a decade later, the flag was retired in favor of the Nazi party flag, which also became the National flag until World War II, when the tricolor flag was welcomed again. During the time when East and West Germany were divided, East Germany added its coat of arms to the flag. Since 1989, the German flag returned like the original tricolor.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-06-09 um 18.17.59  Bildschirmfoto 2014-06-09 um 18.18.51

There are different theories about the colours black-red-yellow/gold:



The combination of the colours black, red and gold goes far back in the history of the German Empire. The coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation showed a black eagle on golden ground.
Its claws and the mouth were coloured in red since the 13th/14th century. Oldest witness for that is the ca. 1300 created “Heidelberg Song Manuscript Manesse“.

Already in the year 1184, on the Hoftag (court day) in Mainz, the colours black, red and gold should have been named as “German Colours”.

In the year 1212 Archbishop Siegfried III. of Epstein crowned the Staufer Frederic II. to the German King in the cathedral in Mainz. Here Frederic weared a coronation coat in the colours red, black and gold. That coat was in use for the most coronations of the German kings and emperors until the end of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nation (1806). (Flaggenlexikon)

Codex Manesse; Meister des Codex Manesse (Grundstockmaler) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Some do explain the three colours by the uniforms of the corps called “Luetzow Hunters” (Lutzower Jäger): ” This military unit was recruited from non-prussian voluntaries, consist therefore in voluntary fighters from many German states, and count in this way for the vanguard of a national inspired people’s army” and which Karl-Theodor Koerner (1791–1813) described in his poem “Luetzow’s wild, audacious hunt”, where “their black uniform with the red cuffs and golden knobs with the black caps and the black – red – golden cockade thereupon” as very popular. (cfr. Flaggenlexikon)

The Italian flag

The flag of Italy is a tricolour (il Tricolore). It consists of three equally sized vertical pales of green, white and red. It’s current form is in use since the 19th of June 1946 and it was formally adopted on 1 January 1948.

The Cispadane Republic used this tricolour the first time in 1797. Napoleon’s army had just crossed Italy in 1796. – The colours red and white were the colours of the conquered flag of Milan and green was the colour of the uniform of the Milanese civic guard. A common interpretation is that the green represents the country’s plains and hills, the white the snow-capped Alps and thre red the blood split in the Wars of Italian Independence. A more religious interpretation referring the three theological vitues is that the green represents hope, the white represents faith and the red represents the charity.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-06-09 um 21.46.07

If you live in a multicultural family, which are the flags you teach your children about?

This post was written for the MKB Blog Carnival of June, 

the topic being “Flags”. You can find the list of the other posts 

on the website: http://kidworldcitizen.org/ after the 11th of June

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“Take off your shoes, please”…?

No shoesIn many countries like Germany, Switzerland, Skandinavian countries etc. it is common use to take off the shoes when entering someone’s home (*). The custom of removing shoes is widespread also in Eastern countries like Japan, Korea and Turkey.

In these countries it is considered a major faux pas to walk through a house with shoes on. In some schools in Sweden, children are even required to remove their shoes.

In Japan, removing shoes has also a very practical matter. Traditionally, the floors in Japanese dwellings were covered with tatami mats which are used to sit on and to sleep on instead of chairs and beds. Wearing shoes into the house would bring the mud, dirt, dust and bacteria into the house and you would sit and sleep in all that. Even if the pavement technology has pretty much improved and hard flooring is quite common in Japanese houses nowadays, the tradition of taking off shoes remains.

Please take off your shoes before entering the...

Please take off your shoes before entering the temple (Photo credit: Stephen Chipp)

Removing shoes before entering a home is more a cultural rather than a religious tradition, it is important to know that some religions require removing shoes before entering a house of worship or a temple: muslims remove their shoes before entering a mosque, Hindus remove their shoes before entering a temple and Sikhs do the same before entering a gurdwara. People used to do so for religious reasons will also be more sensible about it in their own house.

Generally, we could say that from a cultural point of view, it is considered a mark of respect if guests remove their shoes while entering someone’s home.

Many people feel uncomfortable when asked to remove their shoes when entering someone’s home. They feel as if it is an imposition, a demand for a level of intimacy that they may not be willing to have with the person they’re visiting. Some also don’t want to show their feet or their socks or stockings, or would even feel mortified to be asked to take off their shoes in public, simply because in their culture it is not common.

The main reason for removing shoes is health

“In the 15th century one was not allowed to enter a room without taking off shoes in Holland. One can only imagine the human and animal sewage that one would walk through out in the world at that time, so removing shoes would be a precaution against illness-causing bacteria”. (Annie B. Bond)

Since municipal sewage systems took hold and cars and trains did supersede animal transportation, we could say that the original health reasons behind removing shoes fell away.

But new studies show that while we may no longer be tracking in as much bacteria on our shoes, we are tracking in dangerous pollutants. Therefore it may be time to return to the practices of the 15th century to protect the health of our homes. In her article about this topic, the Health Home Expert Annie B. Bond, lists up many examples that should convince people to take off their shoes at home.

Pesticides, toxic coal tar, lead etc. are tracked into homes on shoes. Taking off shoes at the door is even more important if you have carpets, which are “sink hole(s) for toxins of all kinds” that are brought into the home on shoes and boots “including pollens, lead, pesticides and more”. Furthermore, infants and young children spend most of the time on the floor (not in all cultures!) and are much closer to the floor, put toys that have been on the floor into their mouth etc. “With their growing central nervous systems and developing immune systems, toxic chemicals can be especially damaging”. The same applies to pets who are also vulnerable to exposure because commonly lying on the floor or carpet.

(*) I would like to point out that, contrary to what I said in the first version of this post (published on Sunday the 24th November), it is not common anymore to take off the shoes in every home in the Netherlands. I quickly asked my Dutch friends who confirmed that they did not always do it and, what I found particularly interesting: they do it when they have small children (babies or toddlers) who play on the floor. – I would like to thank Rakael, who pointed this out in the reply section and made me realize that my data was not accurate enough and partly based on obsolete observations made by others.

When to ask and when not to ask to take off the shoes…

I grew up with the habit to take off my shoes every time I came home but I lived in a country where people didn’t have this habit and was used not to do so when entering their home. I ended up combining both habits for my own family. I do expect my family and close friends to take off their shoes as a sign of respect and intimacy. I also ask children to take off their shoes when they come in for obvious health reasons, especially when I know that they will play on the floor and go up and down the stairs (one of our house-rules is: no shoes upstairs or on the stairs).

Considering all the general factors mentioned above – religion, culture, health – one thing has to be pointed out. Taking off the shoes is a sign of intimacy with the guests and we have to be flexible enough to make exceptions.

I would not ask a superior to take off his or her shoes when visiting, or if I have an official gathering at my house. Personally, I would also feel very uncomfortable to ask someone I don’t really know to remove his or her shoes at the doorstep. Also, I usually don’t ask friends to take off their shoes if they’ll only stay downstairs and probably go in our garden or if I know that there will be other guests who feel less comfortable with taking off their shoes.

In general, in our house shoes are allowed downstairs when we have guests who don’t have to (for reasons mentioned above) or can’t take off their shoes. Some of our friends have diabetes or other medical conditions which require that they keep their shoes on.

It helps that we don’t have carpets downstairs and I usually clean the floors after people walked in with shoes; especially when workers came into the house.

If it is considered a faux pas to not take off the shoes in some cultures, it is also considered a faux pas to take them off in cultures where people is not used to this habit. It can be very embarassing entering a room in socks where everyone else wears shoes…

In my opinion it is a matter of cultural intelligence to ponder if it’s better to wear shoes or take them off when visiting.

Some tips for the guest and the host

If you visit someone’s home and are not sure if you’ll be asked to take off your shoes, you can ask your host right after the welcome or look what other guests did while entering the home (usually hosts would direct you to the place where to take off your shoes if this is desired).

If you know that you will visit someone from a culture where you will probably be asked to leave your shoes at the doorstep and don’t want to be offered slippers by your host, I have a small advice: bring a pair of socks with you or house shoes. I usually have some socks in my handbag just in case.

If you are the host there are some ways to make your guests feel more comfortable and relaxed if you want them to take off their shoes. If you know that your guests don’t have the same habit, you can advise them beforehand and ask them to bring some slippers or socks – of course, if you are close enough friends! You can also offer clean (!) house slippers in various sizes available for your guests, but don’t be surprised if the guest does not accept; many people don’t like to take on “used” shoes. It’s a matter of hygiene and putting on someone elses’ shoes can feel gross to some people.

In order to respect the privacy of your guest, foresee a place in the entrance where people can sit and comfortably take off their shoes and place them without being eyed by other guests.

As host you should also always consider the option to not ask your guests to take off their shoes. Simply as a sign of respect for their privacy and personal boundaries, especially if they are not close friends or you know that some of them would not be comfortable with this habit.

Do you have the habit to remove your shoes when entering a home? How do you react when asked to remove your shoes? Do you ask people to do so when entering your home?