Are you a newly arrived expat? Have you recently settled in a new country or are just about to arrive? Are you dreading Christmas or still wondering what to do for the holidays? An expat Christmas brings a lot of doubts and decisions.
I have spent nearly 20 Christmases as an expat. (Wow, where does the time go?) So I know how tough it can be. You wonder whether to go ‘home’ (wherever that may be), stay put in your adopted country, spend time with extended family or just have fun on your own, with your new friends. The holidays are a difficult time at best: trying to please everyone, trying not to disappoint. Distance, location and finances may be big decisive factors.
I won’t claim to give you the answer as to what to do because we are all different and we all do what we think is best for us and our families at a specific point in our life. However, here are some ideas, tips and funny stories from seasoned expats who have been there and have struggled through these decisions also.
10 Tips for Your (First) Expat Christmas
1. Don’t move in December especially if you are on your own.
Clara says: “True I got invited to lots of Christmas parties and thus met many contacts this way but I should just have stayed at home until the new year……” Others echo this feeling too: “My first expat Christmas occurred two days off the plane in the throes of jet lag. I brought necessary merrymaking supplies in my luggage. This route is best avoided if at all possible.” – Amy
2. Stay and embrace the traditions of your adopted country
“My one piece of advice would be not to try to recreate your Christmases of past, but to try something new & different! For us, watching Santa’s surfing in Manly Beach was such a far cry from our traditional CT snowy Christmases we couldn’t help but be intrigued.” – Cathy
Kayte loves Christmas in Catalunya and says: “We go for hot chocolates and churros and walk on the beautiful beaches too.”
3. Stay and make your own traditions
Isabel says: “We stayed! We invited other expats who were single or had travelling (working) partners and this way we enjoyed Christmas together instead of ‘alone’. It became our own tradition for the following 8 years on Christmas Eve”. Kacie suggests inviting new friends also, as she explains: “If Christmas happens during your first 6 months overseas, the homesickness will probably feel worse because you’re still in the super hard adjustment period anyway. Use your homesickness to create something really special in your own home, don’t just wait to be invited into someone else’s home, why not invite others into yours?” And Susan adds: “We started new traditions which developed over many years of living in different countries. I believe some of those traditions have shaped our sons into the people they are today.”
Heather gives great suggestions for your first expat Christmas: “We do a lot of non-traditional things for our celebrations which are very portable and not location-centric. One thing we have always done is to invite all the single people or young couples who wouldn’t be able to go “home” anyway to come to our house for a big Christmas feast on Christmas night. We always make it a non-traditional meal so no one compares my cooking to their beloved nana’s. For instance, one year we did a big breakfast-for-dinner feast with five different kinds of pancakes, another year we did Hawaiian Lunch Plate with Kahlua pulled pork sandwiches and macaroni salad, etc. When we do something fun and off beat for people who would otherwise be alone and very far from family on Christmas, we all make great new memories together that are hard to compare to what they’d be doing if they (and we) were in our passport countries.”
4. Stay and invite family to join you
If you are a mixed couple or feeling lonely, this may work. Ursula says: “We are a mixed couple who don’t have family where we used to consider home. So we would have to decide to go to our parents’ house. We are now living in Dubai, where the weather is much nicer than Europe or us for Christmas, so what we do (we did it last year, that was our first) is invite family to come visit us for the holidays.” Chelsea adds: “My first expat Christmas my family came to stay with me! I took them around my new country and showed them my new life and new traditions and it was fun for all of us.” Just be aware that there might be reluctance from even close family to break with their own traditions and join you.
5. Go back to your passport country and see your family
Mirage says: “We see our family twice a year and that is not nearly enough. If your extended family is important to you, you go home. If your children live abroad, you all meet up in your home country (especially if one of them lives there). For me there’s no question: go back home for Christmas. My tickets are booked. My mum’s ecstatic.”
6. Go back and surprise everyone
“First Christmas in China we had prepared family in France that we couldn’t come home only 4 months after leaving. And then surprised them by coming home anyway! Of course they were happy but we were exhausted, both working on the day after landing back with 3 kids between 20 months and 7 years in full jet-lag mode… Took us 8 years to go back to Europe for Christmas again!” – Martine
7. Go somewhere neutral/new
“Sometimes Christmas is nice away from the pressures of holiday seasons and extended family gatherings” – Alison
If you have older children or family living in different places, Holly has this advice: “We are expat with kids at home and kids in college. The holidays are all about our togetherness! So, a quiet exotic remote location where WE can all reconnect!”
8. If you do go back home, don’t expect everyone to bend over backwards to accommodate you.
Kayte mentions: “We have had some very lonely Christmases returning when we don’t get invited to family for Christmas day, only on Boxing day. They all do what they do while we have been gone and don’t include us. Some have celebrated with family who live in the next village who they see every week but can’t include us. They think we are ok outside as that is where we live now. We have celebrated in rented depersonalised houses or hotels. So now we don’t go. We still get a bit homesick but have created our own Christmas in our host country.”
“As with most trips home you soon realise that people are too busy with their own lives (rightly so) and don’t/can’t appreciate the cost and effort you have made just to get there. It’s no fault of the family and friends but it is usually the case and can be really upsetting and confronting.” – Ceri
9. If you stay in your adopted country, don’t expect Christmas to be the same. Try something new and different.
10. Whatever you decide, don’t try and recreate your old Christmases.
It just won’t work. It will be different. Forget about old Christmases. Prepare for your expat Christmas to be different and embrace it.
Go wherever your heart tells you and be happy there! – Rebecka
A big thank you to all of the expats who shared their experiences with me.
And Merry Christmas to all.