For my entire life, even when I lived in an apartment as a college student, I’ve had a real Christmas tree. After Tom and I got married and had kids, there were a number of traditions involved around choosing and setting up the tree every year. We lived in North Carolina for sixteen years before moving to Portugal this year.  There were beautiful Fraser fir that we bought each year from Mr. Johnny, a fixture in the community. Some years, he would throw the tree in the back of his truck and bring it to our house (which was easier than trying it on my car). Each year we would catch up on his health issues, my kids, his business. This was something I enjoyed and looked forward to as much as the actual tree.

Live trees are not as much of a thing here in Portugal.  Most of the options make Charlie Brown’s tree look lush and full. They come stapled to a board, so keeping them fresh in water isn’t an option. I was on the fence about what to do about a tree this year. After seeing my brother’s solution, which involved zip tying two of these sad trees together, I decided to break tradition and bought a fake tree.


This experience has me thinking a lot about traditions. Like our students who are in Europe, living in a different country requires a certain level of flexibility when it comes to our traditions from home. It also introduces us all to new ones that we may want to incorporate into our lives.  This, of course, is not exclusive to holidays but also includes student life.

When we think of student life traditions in the US, many of us often think of events around sports or maybe those around Greek life.  Most of these traditions relate in some way to parties and social life.  There are student life traditions in other countries too and certainly no shortage of parties (in non-corona times at least).  These traditions provide the same outcome as those in other countries. They can lead to a sense of belonging and community, provide meaningful shared experiences with others, and are also just fun!

Finland has a number of student life traditions that provide good examples of this. The first involves coveralls. Students buy a set of coveralls that are associated with their university or sometimes even the department at their university and wear them to parties (usually with something creative or fashionable done with the top part of the coverall). Since student life is tied more to the city than the school, you see many different colors of coveralls at parties!

Students then earn patches for their coveralls at parties, pub crawls, and other activities. Patches can also be purchased at specialty stores or from students who have a business designing them.  Wearing sweatshirts with the university name really isn’t much of a thing in Europe so the colored coveralls are a way of being a part of the student community in the city as well as representing your own university (and potentially department). The patches and colored coveralls provide easy ways to start conversations as well when meeting new people.

Then there is the singing….When I was in Finland a few years ago, I met with an American student in Mikkeli who told me about how much she loves sitsit. These are student dinner parties with all sorts of rules and traditions around singing and toasting. Sometimes these are formal events, sometimes a theme/costume party, sometimes with dancing, but there is ALWAYS singing. This is a very Finnish tradition (though Sweden has some similar traditions) so participation can make students feel not only a part of student life traditions but feel a part of  Finnish student life.

Covid has made it hard to learn about many Portuguese Christmas traditions this year.  I like the idea of seafood on Christmas eve, but it may be a hard sell for Sam and Ellie.  I’m sure we will all pass on the idea of a codfish heavy meal, but perhaps we could adapt the Christmas eve tradition of Northern Portugal with the inclusion of octopus in our meal.  I’m interested in creating new traditions that appeal to me from other countries as well. I started making glogg every December after falling in love with it on a winter trip to visit schools in Scandinavia. I also love the idea of the Jolabokaflod in Iceland in which includes exchanging gifts of books and spending the evening reading. We have found some ways to include some of our past traditions here.  For years, we’ve been getting a smoked goose in the US, which only required roasting on Christmas day.  We sourced a goose for a local butcher and found a restaurant that will smoke it for us. That, along with homemade mac and cheese, will provide some sense of tradition for us, even without a real tree!