It’s minor in the grand scheme of things, of course, but one of the aspects of living overseas that can be unexpectedly difficult to adjust to is celebrating holidays. And I don’t just mean Christmas. I mean all the holidays you were used to celebrating back in your home country. It’s something you don’t really think much about until the first holiday rolls around after you’ve moved abroad and you suddenly realize, I have absolutely no idea how or even if they celebrate this here.
For us, the first holiday after we moved to London was the Fourth of July. For obvious reasons, we knew London wouldn’t be celebrating that one (that would have been so amazing and so ironic if they did, though), but it did get me thinking about future holidays and how we’d be able to keep our usual traditions alive, even if the rest of the country wasn’t celebrating along with us.
Besides Thanksgiving and Christmas, the holiday we look forward to the most every year is Halloween. When we were living in the USA, we celebrated Halloween, ah, let’s just say…rather enthusiastically. We’d decorate the entire downstairs of our house, make goodie bags to hand out to friends, watch scary movies all month long, bake Halloween treats, carve pumpkins, attend at least one party, scare ourselves silly in haunted houses and corn mazes, and, of course, spend an extraordinarily long time choosing the perfect costume for the most critical part of the holiday – trick-or-treating. So, imagine my disappointment when I realized London just really isn’t all that into Halloween.
It’s not that London doesn’t recognize the holiday – you can find pumpkins for sale everywhere and there are lots of parties and events, although mostly for adults – it’s just that it’s not really celebrated in the same way or on the same scale as we do back home. We celebrated our first two Halloweens in London with a small gathering of friends and made an ill-fated attempt each year at trick-or-treating that included a lot of Ah, maybe you shouldn’t knock on that door actually moments and produced a whopping total of 20 pieces of candy on both occasions.
By our third year, though, after two years of reconnaissance and with a little more advance planning, Halloween started to feel a little more like Halloween again.
We had learned the best time to attempt trick-or-treating was as early as possible (Brits don’t like to be bothered after 6pm apparently), so we hit the streets before 5pm even though it felt uncomfortably early in comparison to what we’re used to back home. We had also figured out which streets in our neighborhood were the most Halloween-friendly (not surprisingly, the ones with the most expats), so for the first time in three years Lex actually came home at the end of the evening with a teeth-rotting load of candy again. (We Americans really are an unhealthy bunch, aren’t we? It’s not a successful Halloween unless you can destroy your teeth and your BMI with your candy haul!)
I have to say, Lexie’s Halloween costume was really on point this year, too. Except for when she was very little, we’ve always tried to get creative and put Lexie’s costumes together on our own. (These skills ended up coming in handy in London where there was no Target aisle full of store-bought options to choose from!) This year, though, she did it all by herself. She chose to be her favorite TV character, Abby Sciuto from NCIS, and the end result was nothing short of awesome. She got so many comments from people who were able to recognize who she was supposed to be. (I’m sure equally as many were stumped by the girl dressed as the goth doctor, though. Ha!)
Candy and costumes aside, the thing that really made this Halloween great were the people we spent it with. Friendships can be rather transient when you’re an expat, so you have to learn to make friends fast if you want to make them at all. Some of the people at this table we were friends with the whole three years we spent in London, and others were ones we’d only just gotten to know, but each one of them made our holiday feel more special (and more like it used to back home) just by joining us in celebrating.
It took us three years, but we had finally figured out how to celebrate a proper Halloween in London…and then we moved to Singapore and were back at square one all over again.
Our first Halloween in Singapore was pretty much the most pitiful Halloween ever. With Lexie having nearly outgrown an acceptable trick-or-treating age the previous year, we already knew those days were over and she wouldn’t be going this year (I still haven’t quite come to terms with this!), but it was just as well because trick-or-treating is definitely not a thing the locals here in Singapore do. With her attending an American school, I thought for sure there would at least be a party or dance she could dress up for and attend, but no, nothing. So for the first time in 14 years, we didn’t even get to make a costume.
The final nail in our Halloween’s coffin came a week before the holiday when we went out in search of the perfect pumpkin to carve only to realize there were no pumpkins left at all. Apparently Singapore only imports like 12 pumpkins into the country every October and if you don’t manage to snag one of those, you’ll have to resort to buying a miniature painted atrocity if you want to have anything at all. So, we pretty much managed to violate every single rule there is for celebrating Halloween by not having costumes, a party to attend, or even carving a pumpkin that year.
We tried to make ourselves feel better by buying eye-wateringly expensive American candy and baking banana bread (more a fall thing than a Halloween thing, really) and vowed to make next year a better year. And it definitely was.
It always takes a little while to find your groove in a new place, and by our second Halloween, we’d found it. And, more importantly, we knew where and when to buy a pumpkin! As soon as I saw them set up a small display in the market near our condo, I snatched one up, trying not to look at the price before I got to the register. (The heavier the produce, the more expensive it is to import into Singapore. $20 cucumbers, anyone?)
To represent the family members living in our apartment that we don’t often see, but still know they’re there thanks to the gifts they leave us, we decided on a pumpkin design perfectly suited for Singapore – a gecko. It’s always Lexie’s and my job to pick the design and Cory’s to carve it and he did such a fabulous job with this one. Definitely one of our best pumpkins yet! I was so sad when we had to throw it out two days later when Singapore’s humidity turned it into a moldy pile of mush. (Funny story, I wasn’t really thinking when we tossed it out. We put it in a plastic bag and dropped it down our trash chute, but we live on the 28th floor. Talk about smashing pumpkins – that thing probably burst into a million pieces when it hit the dumpster at the bottom!)
I also took the opportunity this Halloween to introduce Lex to some of my favorite completely-predictable-yet-still-totally-awesome 90’s teen horror films. (Honestly, why did I think Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer were so scary back then? So embarrassing.) So, there might not have been any trick-or-treating or costume parties to attend this year either, but we still had a much better Halloween this year than last.
When all else fails, if you find yourself celebrating Halloween in a country that doesn’t actually celebrate Halloween, you can always seek out spooky things to do in your city that aren’t necessarily related to Halloween. In London, our first year we visited the London Dungeon at Halloween and our second went on a London ghost walk. These sorts of things are open all year long, but are especially fun to do at Halloween!