An International Christmas in Kathmandu

Features Issue 134 Jan, 2013
Text by Sally Acharya


Here’s a quick holiday quiz. What belongs on the Christmas table: Beet soup, pork or eel?
What do you do with a Christmas tree: Enjoy it all month, decorate it on Christmas Eve or dance around it?
Who brings the gifts: A fairy at the window, a bearded fellow who comes for coffee and looks suspiciously like Uncle Sven, or a jolly fat man who drops through 

the chimney when you’re asleep?

The answer depends on where you’re from. And in Kathmandu, that can be a lot of countries.
The U.S. Embassy estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 Americans live in Nepal. The British Embassy knows of around 1,400 British residents. Add that to over 1,000 Australians, some 350 Germans, at least 60 Danes, 50 Norwegians, and all the Dutch, French, Poles and Italians and you have a start – but just a start – to the eclectic mix of people who might be awaiting a Kathmandu visit from Santa Claus, Pere Noel, Babbo Natale or whatever their local variant might be.

Of course, not everyone from those countries celebrates Christmas. And there are also many Nepalis who celebrate it, either because they’re Christian or because, as one long-timer resident puts it, “it’s a festival, and Nepalis love festivals.” But for many foreigners in Nepal, Christmas is a time when the traditions of home, wherever that may be, can matter a great deal. And those traditions are as varied as the accents of the merry-makers.

Who, for instance, thinks of Santa without reindeer to carry him from the North Pole? Well, actually, the Dutch do. And they pretty much wrote the book on Santa – or at least the early draft. The name “Santa Claus” originated as Sinterklaas, a Dutch reference to Saint Nicholas, a Greek bishop in fourth-century Turkey. But Sinterklaas is said to arrive on a boat, fly onto rooftops on a white horse, and spend the rest of the year in the warmth of Spain. To Dutch caterer Alex Burggraaf, that makes perfect sense: “Why would he live in the North Pole when he could live in Spain?”

But the sailing Santa with his Spanish villa still needs a chimney to get into Dutch homes. Well, actually, he sends his servants through it – the Dutch Santa seems to lead a comfortable life – but the chimney is the preferred delivery route, as it is in many cultures. That’s inconvenient in Kathmandu, where fireplaces are in short supply. But Austrians have no worries, since their gifts come from a small fairy practical enough to use the window. First the fairy comes to the window to pick up the children’s wish list, explains Birgit Lienhart, owner of Karma Coffee. Then the fairy returns on Christmas Eve to deliver gifts, although that part is a bit of a feat, since it’s done while children are still awake, in the other room, listening for the telltale sound of the bell.
In a sign of non-discrimination that would warm the heart of any development worker, the fairy, whose name is Kris Kindl, has an indeterminate gender. That, at least, is how Lienhart sees it. On the other hand, “Kris Kindle is a girl,” insists Walter Schweiger, owner of the Vienna Bakery.

Whatever the fairy’s gender, the gifts go under the tree, which means there has to be a tree. Finding one is an annual challenge shared by many expats. Britain’s top-selling Norway Spruce or America’s favored Douglas Fir just aren’t found in Nepal, and nothing really looks like them. There are many stories of making do with cut branches or bamboo, and one long-time resident even tells of a Christmas tree made of a plant that turned out to be wild marijuana. (“I really didn’t know,” he says. “It had a nice shape.”)

Nowadays there are plastic trees at local markets, but they tend to be purchased with an attitude that’s more ke garne than ho-ho-ho. “My daughter wanted a real tree,” says Sandro Serafini, “but it’s not Italy, so what can we do?” Lienhart found her own solution: She bought a pine at a nursery, planted it in her yard, and digs it up to stand Christmas duty in its root ball.

Of course, once the tree is up, it has to be covered with ornaments. Jenny Reid and 12-year-old Laura, of the U.S., see the holiday as primarily a time to celebrate their faith – the tree and Santa are folk traditions and not part of the Christian religion – but of course they also enjoy the tree and all the glitter and spirit of giving surrounding it. They make ornaments at home of felt or cornstarch and baking soda, as does So-Yon Thompson for her Korean-Canadian family, and sell them to benefit anti-trafficking and humanitarian work.
Ornaments are abundant at fair-trade stores and holiday bazaars, which become the foreigner’s seasonal equivalent of the bustling shopping malls back home, with the added satisfaction of knowing that the money goes to small-scale artisans, a fair wage or a good cause.

The Tree Circle

Lena Hasle almost cries when she thinks of the beautiful moment that, to her, is Norway at Christmas. The tree in Scandinavian countries goes in the center of the room and everyone clasps hands around it, circling it in a slow dance and singing together, young and old. It’s a time for holding hands with loved ones and feeling the warmth of a tradition that connects the present to the distant past. “It’s that minute you realize it’s really a pagan tradition – when you’re holding hands and singing around the tree,” says Hasle.

The Christmas tree has a mysterious genealogy. Druidic Europe was filled with sacred groves, and the Norse used evergreen boughs, sacred to the sun god Balder, to ward off evil spirits around the time of the winter solstice, when darkness seemed ready to swallow the earth. But the first records of an apparent Christmas tree come from medieval Estonia and a guild called the Brotherhood of Blackheads. Who were the Blackheads? As it turns out, they were expatriates. The guild consisted of foreign merchants, unmarried men and others who didn’t quite belong to mainstream local culture. Their guild hall during Christmas must have been a kind of home away from home, and its centerpiece was an evergreen decorated with fruit, nuts and sweets.

There are other arboreal ancestors, too, including medieval “Trees of Paradise” decorated with apples on the Feast of Adam’s Name Day, which happened to be December 24, a date that was not always associated by Christians with the birth of Jesus. Whatever its roots, the tradition of decorating a tree didn’t move beyond northern Europe until the mid 1800s. The classic American 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which established the iconic image of Santa, mentions no tree at all. The “right jolly old elf” merely fills the stockings before whooshing back up the chimney.

It was the 1841 marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, a German, that brought the custom into fashionable parlors as far away as the U.S. By the 1850s, American women’s magazines were full of advice on how to decorate that new trend in Christmas décor, the “German tree.” Initially a tabletop tree, it only grew to its iconic floor-to-ceiling, light-strewn incarnation at the turn of the century, just in time for the birth of Hollywood. Soon the American version of Christmas would spread around the world until even Kathmandu would have its own Santas, although they sometimes ride on rickshaws or elephants.

But when, precisely, does this spirit of Christmas arrive? Like the question of when to decorate the tree – as soon as you get it home, for many Americans, or on Christmas Eve, for many Europeans -- that remains a matter of culture. Some countries welcome more than one visitor, with St. Nicholas coming in early December and another gift-giver arriving later. If there’s a Santa figure, he may show up to meet the whole family – although, if you looked behind the beard, he might look suspiciously like a grandfather, uncle, or Hasle, of the Norwegian embassy, who has found gender no bar to Santa-hood.

Of course, Nepal is a bit far from Santa’s usual circuit, which can raise concern about how he will find the house -- particularly if a family has just moved. “We’ve told them Jack Frost lives in the Himalayas, so he can direct him,” explains Katharin Hood of the U.K., whose children have been asking about Santa “almost hourly” now that their tree is up, a potted one ornamented with furry yaks and Buddha baubles. Four-year-old Ella is confident he’ll find the way: “His reindeers know.”

They certainly do. They regularly land on the balcony of Susan Shrestha, originally of Australia, where they find a snack of tasty grass laid out each year. Some historians trace the tradition to straw left in boots for the flying horse of the Germanic and Scandinavian god Odin, who also apparently traveled around bearing gifts. But modern children know it’s for Rudolph.

The Christmas Eel

What people eat for Christmas is as distinctive as the carols they sing, but often quite a bit harder to find in Nepal. You can store “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Un Flambeau, Jeanette Isabella” or “Lulajze, Jezuniu” on a laptop or download them from YouTube, but artichokes may not be found anywhere except for the Serafini family’s freezer, where they’ve been preserved for months, because Italians know you need fried artichokes on Christmas.

Another Italian necessity: roasted eel. “There has to be eel on the table,” insists Serafini, who hopes his mother will send the family a care package again this year with a Christmas eel inside.
In France, there should be seafood, says Christine Regnier, owner of the French restaurant Delices de France. Scandinavians, on the other hand, are partial to pork, which would be easy enough to manage – except when your guest list is international, in which case the Muslims definitely won’t eat the pork and a lot of the Hindus and Buddhists won’t, either.

In England and the U.S., cranberries are often on the table, prompting conversations in Nepal about whether to make do with jellied cranberries from a can or if a packet of Craisins might cook up nicely.
Mike Krajniak, originally of Detroit, spent years trying to re-create the right Polish-American Christmas. The 30-year resident of Nepal once stuffed goat guts into a bamboo tube in an attempt to make kielbasa. That was before two actual Poles, Ewa and Martin Urbianik, showed up in Kathmandu to build a smokehouse and churn out kielbasa sold at the weekly farmer’s markets.

A true Polish celebration involves a Christmas Eve meal called a wigilia, or vigil, that begins after the first star is seen and includes a beet soup, cabbage, fish, and a dumpling called pierogi that Krajniak has made by adapting a momo recipe for the traditiona potato, cheese or mushroom filling.

The Urbianiks don’t try to host a wigilia, but they’re happy inviting over friends from many countries. “Every year, I know something more about a different country,” says Ewa Urbianik. “Christmas is not really on the streets, so I lost the feeling of Christmas coming, but I gain so much, because I learn a lot of things about a lot of people.”

Take Root Where You Are

Many of the children looking forward to a Kathmandu Christmas were in another country a while ago and will move again in a year or two. For Third Culture Kids, the term for young people who grow up overseas and may seldom live in their passport countries, traditions are an important part of nurturing a sense of cultural identity -- and that’s true whether the globally mobile family celebrates Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid, Losar or Dashain.
“When kids move a lot, there’s no physical home, so you need to create that sense of home with little things, like having those ‘sacred objects’ that are in your home no matter where you are, and having your own family traditions that you do on the holidays, just as an immediate family, whether you go to Grandma’s or are in Nepal or somewhere else,” says Allison O’Sullivan, a counselor at Lincoln School.

Those traditions might involve the annual unveiling of small treasures, like the felt Christmas tree that one family made to fold easily in a suitcase and pull out each year, even in a hotel room. Or there might be special moments, like reading a beloved story, even if “The Night Before Christmas” is on an iPad. Faraway family can read around the world to a grandchild by Skype or sing a carol together or just share Christmas wishes.
The O’Sullivans created a tradition of taking a family photograph that recognizes their shared experiences. This year’s photo at Patan Durbar Square will someday join what is likely to be a collection of photos from around the world: grandparents’ homes in the States, other countries, other homes.

Wherever a family calls home, if they celebrate Christmas in Nepal, it’s bound to take on a global flavor. And why not? After all, it marks a birth in the Middle East with a celebration that includes tales of a gift-giver who may have begun as a Greek bishop in Turkey or as a Germanic god, but who traveled to America with Dutch settlers and now drops presents by a fir tree that may go back to Nordic solstice rites and Baltic expatriates but was brought to England by a German longing for the traditions of home.

So don’t be surprised if you look outside to see Santa on a rickshaw, handing out curry-flavored candy. After all, as everyone knows, he’s making his way around the world.