Tips for Spending Holidays Overseas

by Anne Merritt Dec 21, 2010

ESL teacher and au pair Rease Kirchner celebrating Christmas in Buenos Aires

Advice for striking a balance between the ‘home’ and ‘away’ elements of celebrating holidays abroad.

For my first Christmas away from home, I planned a busy trip to ward off holiday homesickness, and surrounded myself with non-Christmasy things: A tropical beach! Distracting scubadiving lessons! Buddhist travelmates who won’t hum carols or pine aloud for homemade turkey! I reckoned that I couldn’t miss Christmas that year if it just didn’t happen.

Then came Christmas Day. I found myself in an Internet café, feigning perkiness as I talked to my brother on the phone. “Oh, here, the 25th is just like any other day, no special occasion really,” I forced breeziness while tears formed in my eyes. I couldn’t ignore the holiday and how much I missed it.

For travelers and expats, the odd bout of homesickness is usually manageable. Spending the holidays overseas can be a real toughie though, especially for the first time. It can be tempting to ignore the season completely, as I tried to do, but why deprive yourself of a cherished event? There’s no magic trick to ease homesickness completely. However, there are ways to manage those longing feelings while still enjoying the holidays in your new surroundings.

Alex Berger sailing in Belize on Christmas Eve Day

1. Don’t Try to Recreate Everything

Your version of the holidays is probably a precise one, shaped by years of family traditions, annual events, and rituals formed with friends. Trying to stage an exact reproduction might make you feel further from home when your folly falls short of the real thing. In my experience, nothing will make you miss making snowmen with your cousins like scraping together your own meager Frosty. Nothing will make you miss your treasured family tree-trimming party like hanging earrings alone on the foot-high plastic number that you found in a supermarket.

Instead of trying to recreate old traditions, use this opportunity to create new ones. There are no expectations upon you this year, and therefore no limits as to how you can celebrate the holidays. You can cook the dishes you love, even if they’re not traditionally linked to the season. If you’d rather play drinking games than sing carols with friends, you’re free to do so. Secretly hate the taste of sweet potato pie? You’re off the hook this year!

Some people even feel a secret drop of relief in spending holidays away from home. It’s a pretty demanding time of year, and stress is common in the midst of family tension or party planning. While missing home, remind yourself that at least you dodged a few dull work parties (“Um, love your snowman tie, boss”) or awkward family gatherings (“Still no ring? Tick tock, dear.”)

Mini Christmas tree. Photo: Rease Kirchner

2. Make it a Learning Experience

Include your local friends in the revelry, especially if you’re celebrating a holiday that’s quite foreign to them. Invite colleagues or neighbors over to make dreidels or build a gingerbread house. Cook them some festive food. Your new friends will learn more about your background, and taking on the role of cultural tour guide will keep you busy.

If you’re in a country that celebrates the same holidays as you do, learn about their seasonal customs, and accept any and all invitations to ceremonies or special meals. This will keep you feeling connected to your new adoptive culture, and refresh the curiosity that inspired you to travel in the first place.

If you’re running with an international expat crowd, plan an event where everyone can share a bit of revelry from their own country. You can have a great potluck get-together with holiday music and party games from around the world.

3. Don’t Overconnect with Home

In South Korea, I had a Canadian neighbor who, in December, spent a solid week on Skype. With video, she was streamed into her friends’ Christmas parties and gift exchanges. On Christmas day, all day, she watched her family open gifts, snack on cookies, and play games.

Her tireless will to stay connected with loved ones was touching, and I imagine it meant a great deal to the people back home, too. However, by logging marathon hours on her laptop, alone in her apartment, she missed a lot of the local holiday fun.

While staying connected is important, don’t let it consume all your holiday socializing. Of course its fun to video-attend Aunt Ida’s annual mulled wine party, but you may miss a few real Christmas parties around you.

Instead of pining for hometown events, give Skype a break and get involved in local holiday functions. Expat groups or associations like the Lion’s Club often plan parties around the holidays. Foreigner pubs and restaurants usually have message boards with special events advertised. Staying socially active will help foster a feel of community in your new adoptive home.

Prepping for Thanksgiving, Senegal. Photo: Betsy Feuerstein

If you have a group of fellow expat friends, know that they’re probably feeling homesick too. Together, you can strategize fun ways to beat homesickness and honor the holidays. Plan special events, like gift swaps or holiday movie night…Home Alone, anyone? Feel free to talk about your homesickness too; your fellow expats can relate.

4. Plan for Homesickness

A few spells of homesickness are inevitable around the holidays; it’s the worst time of year for wish-I-was-there feelings. Rather than telling yourself to suck it up, plan for some sadness, and strategize how to cope with those inevitable feelings. Some people need nonstop social distractions, while some need alone time to process what they’re feeling. Some people like to talk about their homesickness, while some are better off discussing anything but.

That first Christmas abroad, I felt like a real idiot, crying at a crowded Internet café while my friends looked on uncomfortably. I know now that, in spells of homesickness, a few quiet hours of journaling or watching a movie is what I need to regroup.

Know what works for you, and plan around it.

Community Connection

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