I’ve been an expat for more than eight years now, and for most of those years I’ve been away from my home of Australia over Christmas. My husband and I have spent Christmas abroad in Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Argentina, Uruguay and the United States and we’ve always found a way to enjoy the holiday time, even though we were far away from friends and family.
For many, the Christmas period can be a tough time, being away from friends and family and sometimes even in a completely different culture. If you can’t (or don’t want to) go home, here are some tips for how to spend Christmas abroad as an expat.
Embrace the cultural experience
Chances are that you’re living in a country with completely different cultures and customs to what you grew up with. You’re probably (hopefully!) taking advantage of learning about these differences, and Christmas is a great time to experience these. Take some time to talk to your new friends and colleagues about how they celebrate this holiday period and share with them what you would typically do back home.
For example, you’ll find out that in Argentina, the main Christmas celebrations are actually on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena) rather than on Christmas Day. This is the case for many countries around the world, especially those in Europe.
In the Philippines, Christmas is celebrated from September right through to January!
Despite Ethiopia’s Christian heritage, Christmas actually isn’t an important holiday.
In Iceland, on Christmas Eve people give gifts of books and then spend the night reading them and eating chocolate – sounds like my kind of Christmas!
For some, the weather may be completely different to what you’re used to. If you’re from some parts of the United States, you may be used to seeing snow when you wake up on Christmas morning, or drinking mulled wine by the fire. But if you’re an expat in Australia, you could be celebrating with a barbecue under the hot sun or nursing a hangover on the beach.
You may even be in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas at all, and that’s still an opportunity to learn about what people do for their special celebrations.
Whatever’s happening in your new home country, treat it as a learning opportunity, as well as a chance to share more about your country’s traditions.
Crash a local’s celebration
When you’re having those conversations with friends about what’s different between your Christmas and theirs, start dropping hints about how you’ve got no plans and you’re so far away from home and it’s going to be oh-so-hard this year… The goal is to get an invitation to their Christmas lunch or dinner. What better way to learn about local customs, right?
Organise an “orphan Christmas”
If you’re an expat, no doubt there are other expats around you who are also facing the prospect of a Christmas abroad, far away from family. One of the best things to do is bring all those people together in what I like to call an orphan Christmas.
We did this for many years when we lived in Papua New Guinea. We’d either go to someone’s house or invite a group of friends to our house to share the day. Everyone brings something to eat and drink, and the party usually ends up going late in to the night. Often, friends of friends would turn up and we’d end up with some new friends.
Do something that reminds you of home
Would you normally spend Christmas afternoon digesting your lunch and watching cheesy Christmas movies on TV? Then do the same thing in your new country!
Do you ALWAYS eat turkey on Christmas? Then get to the supermarket and see what you can find to cook up. You may not be able to find turkey but perhaps you could put a twist on it and roast up a chicken instead, and add a local side dish.
Are you always the one to organise a Secret Santa? Then get together a small group of new friends or colleagues to do the same.
While I think it’s important to celebrate the way the locals do, there’s nothing wrong with doing something that’s YOUR tradition.
Travel somewhere new
One of the best things about living abroad is all the travel opportunities available. And over Christmas, there’s no better way to make your friends and family jealous than by travelling somewhere else.
If you’re an expat in Europe, why not take a quick jaunt to Spain or Portugal or visit the Christmas markets in Vienna. Or pop down to Mexico for Christmas if you’re living in the United States or Canada.
One year we went to Uruguay and did a road trip along the coast, spending Christmas on the beach in Cabo Polonia. Another year, we biked for three days along the Ruta de los Siete Lagos in northern Patagonia. We ended up in the picturesque town of San Martín de los Andes for Christmas and had a surprisingly raucous Christmas dinner at an Irish pub on Noche Buena.
Another year we drove across Texas and spent Christmas glamping in an Airstream trailer in the desert.
Why not spend some time giving back to your new country by volunteering on Christmas day?
Check what’s around your area and if any groups need help. There could be a homeless shelter nearby that needs extra hands for serving Christmas lunch, or a nursing home that’s looking for people to make their clients feel loved on Christmas day. Perhaps there’s an animal shelter and you can spend the day snuggling with kittens and puppies. Who knows, you may even make some new friends or find a new calling.
If you work in a services industry, you know that people never want to work on major holidays. So you could step in and let your boss know you’re willing to work the Christmas shift at the pub or café. It may not be the most exciting Christmas abroad as an expat, but your boss will be super grateful, and in some countries (like Australia) there are usually generous public holiday rates, so there’s extra reason to head to work.
Find a Christmas lunch at a pub or hotel
Hotels and pubs often put on a Christmas feed for a reasonable price. See what your favourite pub is doing. Or maybe that fancy hotel downtown. And don’t be shy to go alone – after a few beers or glasses of Champagne, you’ll be besties with everyone in the bar.
Being away from home can be lonely, so don’t forget to set up time to call family and friends on Christmas day. Use Skype or Facebook video to watch your nieces and nephews unwrapping their presents or have a chat with your grandparents. It will make you feel like you’re not completely missing out on everything that’s going on back home.
Above all, enjoy the time and Merry Christmas!