Christmas Shock

I can very clearly name the number of times that I’ve felt culture shock and a little bit uncomfortable or unnerved by my environment. I can probably count the number of occasions on one hand.

The first was within a week of my arrival. I was at a söröző (bar with cheap drinks), with my colleagues on my first Friday of work. The washroom of the bar had no toilet paper and I had a mini freak out session. At that moment, it hit me that I really was somewhere different and things are not the same as home. Lesson learned from that experience? Carry extra toilet paper in my purse.

Another occasion was when I came back from Berlin and was able to eat a full meal for 3 euros!

This week I was hit with another situation that really made me think. I taught my last lesson of the year and I wanted to do something related to Christmas and the holidays. I vaguely knew that how Hungarians celebrate Christmas is different from what Christmas is to me back home. But I had no idea how different it really is.

For Hungarians, Christmas is still very much about Jesus’ birth. Santa Claus has no part of Christmas – Santa comes on the eve of December 5. Children go to bed early on December 5, putting out their boots for Santa to fill with presents and treats.

For the class, I brought in the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and it was an interesting experience. This poem, in my mind, is fairly well known in North America, but my students had never heard of it. They were able to understand the poem fairly well despite some of the more difficult vocabulary and imagery. But what I couldn’t get over, is that this story of Santa visiting children on December 24 of every year via a sleigh lead by a group of reindeer, a story that is so common in North America and such a part of my childhood, is virtually foreign to my students.

The Christmas carols that I hear and sing every year are unknown to them – despite me hearing them in the shops around the city.

The things that I associate with Christmas are not what they associate with it. Instead of the turkey that most North Americans eat during Christmas, Hungarians eat fish.

And that is when it hit me. I felt so insensitive all of a sudden. Here I was coming from a country where Christmas has lost most of its original meaning. Instead Christmas represents mass consumption and commercialization. But here in Hungary, Christmas still retains its original meaning and I felt like I was pushing my way of celebrating Christmas on them. All of a sudden, I felt like the Christmas that I know and grown up with is just silly and pointless – a holiday to celebrate commercialization. I felt really uncomfortable.

But I guess that is what this whole living abroad experience is about. Learning new things. Experiencing things that are different from the norm.