9 Ways to Make the Most of Christmas Abroad

by Rachel Pieh Jones on December 18, 2017

Christmas abroad can be lonely. It can also be delightful. Here are some things my family has learned over the years that help to make our holiday season special.

Stuff shmuff. The cheaply made but expensive toys break. The box sent from the US arrives late, like next October late (which, in truth, can be super fun. Christmas in October? Why not!). Stuff is easily forgotten over the years. But the gift of a camping trip to the coast? A safari? SCUBA lessons? They are the ‘stuff’ of memories. (I will say, I am super thankful for the actual stuff I have received over the years, too. As anyone knows who asks about my running watch, I still rave about last year’s Christmas present.)

The privilege of making our own traditions. The first few Christmases abroad are blank slates. Do you love the breakfast tradition your family had in your home country and can you replicate it? Then do it. But do you want to have something else for breakfast? Awesome, your choice. We Joneses wrestle, bake cookies, go camping, and laugh at our ridiculous homemade ornaments. Those are yearly traditions. Others come and go depending on people, supplies, schedules. It can feel intimidating, or maybe even sad, to look at advent and Christmas and to feel pressure to make something meaningful. Think of it as an opportunity to creatively design your personalized traditions. (also, know that anything you do one and a half times will be considered a ‘tradition’ by your children.)

Family far away? Make a family. Local friends who don’t celebrate Christmas and local friends who do. New coworkers. Friends from school or sports. Singles and young families, empty nesters and college students. It can be easy to assume others aren’t lonely, like you. Or others have already been invited to dinner or a game night. But maybe they are also sitting at home feeling lonely and uninvited. Love the people far away, yes. Skype and send gifts or messages, visit. But love the people nearby, too. Love them well.

It doesn’t take much to make it special. A two-foot Christmas tree. Paper cutout snowflakes dangling from twine and taped to the ceiling. A scented candle. A special tablecloth. Music.

Portable traditions are really valuable. You can bake in Minnesota and you can bake in Djibouti. You can wrestle in Minnesota, in Djibouti, even in the airport or at Disney World. Develop at least a few traditions you can bring anywhere.

Food blesses everyone. People without kids want to frost sugar cookies, too. Muslims enjoy a good spritz cookie, too. Moms with babies might not have time to bake but they sure appreciate a box of Christmas chocolates. Asking someone new which food they miss most and then surprising them with it on Christmas can make people cry and form lifelong friendships. Recipes are portable, mostly, so you can take that lovely, homey, Christmas kitchen smell with you when you move. You can even box it up and send it to kids in college. Food itself is also portable and communicates someone is remembered.

Enjoy your local friends’ attempts to celebrate with you (and return the favor on their holidays). Even, perhaps especially, when the attempts are funny. Like the mannequin at the grocery store that is more barefoot-martial-arts-stripper than Santa or the ground beef snowman with a carrot nose and olive buttons. Or their delight at seeing their first ‘real’ Christmas tree, ever. Or their building of awesome meat-based snowmen.

Stories matter. Build them, create them, and retell them. They ground mobile kids in their heritage, they give them the building blocks of lifelong laughter, belonging, and shared memory. Santa and the goats. The screaming baby in Santa’s lap (who happens to be her own father). The awkward nativity play. You have your own, tell them.

Read out loud together. Here’s another portable tradition, even one that you can do over Skype. Read the Nativity story in the Bible. Read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (we do, every year, and laugh more every year). Read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and then make up your own, local-style version.

I’m sure y’all have buckets (or should I say action packers) of Christmas lessons, earned through tears and loneliness, learned through laughter and creativity. What are some of your suggestions for making the most of a Christmas abroad?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Abbie Dusciuc

    this was really sweet! I think part of the process is also acknowleding that the holiday will be different, and imbracing that change instead of being sad about it. Which I think this article does a great job of showing! 🙂

  • Sterling

    Great ideas. Did most all of them during my time overseas to make it special. Just wrote an article too on my blog post http://www.sterlingoneill.com about my time overseas at Christmas . Look at point number three: “memories with extended family” esp. wrote Christmas play for kids we did with our teammates. Fun time. A fun memory of Christmas for my kids. Adults now. Sterling

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