Here’s the secret to celebrating fall overseas
Can you imagine October without pumpkins? November without Thanksgiving? Fall without football? I never could… until I lived overseas.
It wasn’t until I lived outside of America that I realized how much of the Fall season is a cultural celebration. We take it for granted that everyone around us knows what a pumpkin spice latte is, or Halloween costumes, or fantasy football. That’s what it means to be American! Yet in many parts of the world, ‘pumpkin spice’ is a foreign language.
We lived in Spain for three years on military orders. Overall, it was a wonderful experience, and I loved Spanish culture. I wrote about the joys of living and traveling in Spain in my book, ‘Welcome to Rota.’ I expected that some of the holidays would be different. We knew the Spanish had unique Christmas traditions, and that it would be hard living so far from our families then. But I didn’t expect to be sentimental about… Autumn. I was surprised by the waves of homesickness that hit me every Fall.
“I was surprised by the waves of homesickness that hit me each Fall.” ~The Seasoned Spouse
The weather certainly didn’t help. I grew up on the East Coast, with leaves that change colors. September is when the nights turn chilly, the corn is harvested, and the kids go back to school. Local farms set up Corn Mazes and Haunted Hay Rides. My parents had an apple farm, so Fall meant picking apples, pressing cider, making applesauce and pies. It’s a season of warm drinks, flannel shirts, and football games.
But not in Spain. In Spain, there are palm trees and beaches. The kids don’t go back to school until September 15, because it is beach weather until then. There are no hay bales or corn harvests or haunted houses or football. And…there are no pumpkins. The Spanish knew that Americans have a weird interest in pumpkins, and they would try to offer me squash or gourds instead. It’s hard to explain what is so important about a large, round, bright orange pumpkin. But somehow, we Americans have a hard time getting through the Fall without pumpkins.
Nevertheless, we all made it through, with cans of pumpkin from the Commissary, tiny pumpkin crafts from MWR, and Trick-or-Treating in base housing. We even invited Spanish families to come onto base for Trick-or-Treating. They thought it was so cool to be part of an American holiday! The Spanish families really focused on the dark and gory side of the holiday, so they would come decked out in elaborate costumes, complete with creepy makeup and dripping blood. They told me that Halloween was a lot like Carnival (which is like Mardi Gras), but with candy instead of alcohol. I have to admit, they have a point.
“When you live overseas, you have a choice how you celebrate the holidays… as an American, or as a local.” ~The Seasoned Spouse
When you live overseas, you always have a choice in how you celebrate the holidays. You can either try your darndest to celebrate the American holiday in full American tradition. Or you can adapt and embrace your local country. Yes, you can order almost any holiday supply online. You can stock up on canned pumpkin and cranberries from the Commissary, starting months in advance. You can have family in the States mail you pumpkin spice Oreos and limited edition M&M’s. You can watch your favorite movies on AFN (American Forces Network) television, and gather American friends for all the traditional celebrations. There is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, you need a little dose of America overseas.
But you can also do so much more. Instead of bemoaning the lack of pumpkin patches and hay rides for your little ones, look around at what the local culture is doing. In Spain, autumn was a continuous string of celebrations. They didn’t have pumpkins, but they were amazing nevertheless. Our local town had a huge festival for the patroness, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. There were parades of decorated horses, with music and dancing in the streets. The following week, there was a Medieval craft fair. The kids ate roasted turkey legs, watched a magic show, and made their own little pottery jars. A few weeks later, the neighboring town had a wine and sherry festival with flamenco shows. Then there was a food festival honoring local fish. Columbus Day is a national holiday in Spain (since that is where he sailed from), so there is a huge military parade in Madrid. The Spanish don’t celebrate Veteran’s Day or Thanksgiving in November, but they do have the day off for All Saints’ Day. Bakeries make special treats, and families pack picnics to take to the graveyards.
Once I got my head out of my pumpkin-spice daydreams, I realized that there were plenty of fun fall events all around me. I started to experience what it really meant to live overseas in Autumn. No, there weren’t many pumpkins or cranberries. But there was a lot more. There was history, tradition, art, culture, music, dancing, food, and a lot of fun! I made some wonderful friends who shared their Spanish traditions with me. And I enjoyed sharing Halloween and Thanksgiving with them. It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t always better. But those experiences of Fall overseas were unique. Years later, I can smile at them, and savor them more fondly than a pumpkin spice latte.