When I learned 10 years ago that my husband's job would be moving us from New York to Munich, I had the usual worries—schools, friends, how to say "bathroom" in German. But what actually kept me awake at night was Christmas. Having always observed the holidays with hallowed traditions, we suddenly realized we were going to be a long way from over the river and through the woods.
Luckily, our new home was in Germany, which dives into the winter holidays with enthusiasm, stringing up lights and calling out an army of angels. We rented a chalet in Kitzbühel, high in the Austrian Alps, for the holiday week. At the Christmas market in the village square, our girls, Zara, then 11, and Kate, 7, discovered gingerbread in every shape imaginable, including toadstools. Our place looked as if Heidi had just moved out, its fretwork capped with the snow that appeared right on cue on December 24. As the bells pealed at midnight, the girls slept under drifts of eiderdown, and I sat in the candlelight, surprised by how happy we all were, even without our cranberry relish and hometown habits.
And so our mobile Christmases began. On the strength of that first trip, we forged a footloose new way of dealing with the days between December 24 and January 1, each year heading for a different destination. After all, didn't the Three Wise Men hit the road?A week in a rented country house in Perthshire, in the Scottish Highlands, was memorable for a midnight church service filled with men in kilts, and for Christmas pudding with real sixpence inside. At the posh Hotel Goldener Hirsch in Salzburg, we smuggled a small pine tree into our room and decorated it with origami animals hung from dental floss. In London, where we moved after three years in Germany, we dressed up for a white-linen-and-lashings-of-cream tea at Fortnum & Mason's, paid tribute to Tiny Tim with a visit to Dickens's house, and went to a Victorian music hall to see a pantomime of "Cinderella," with half the cast in drag. We even tried a cruise, luxuriating aboard Holland America's Rotterdam to the Bahamas—though Santa in a Hawaiian shirt scandalized Kate, our true believer.
Yes, there were culture clashes, moments that made us feel foreign on this most familiar of holidays. The Germans, for instance, tend to celebrate on Christmas Eve, leaving the next day an unplanned expanse, and British Christmas lunches, the turkey accompanied by gluey bread sauce and gray sausages, were more than we could stomach—until the feast was saved by Christmas crackers and toasts in several languages. This year, we've got our eyes on La Foce, an estate with rentals near Siena, where we'll roast chestnuts in an enormous stone fireplace. To make the holiday our own, we always pack the gaudy, jingle-belled stockings knit by my mother; the two traditional ornaments that have followed my girls since their births, a china Scottie dog and a pig wearing a kilt (I said traditional, not tasteful); and scissors and tape for making the most of found objects. The other things we bring along are curiosity and a belief in family, wherever it lands. I know, come Christmas Eve, I'll unpack the presents, and with them, memories of a daughter, years ago, asleep under a candlelit Austrian Christmas tree, or of the other whirling as she danced her first Scottish reel, memories that were cast as we learned to take our celebration with us, to carve out a holiday by being at home in the world.
CATHERINE CALVERT is a writer and editor in London.