9 Ways to Make the Most of Christmas Abroad

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?

Creating Traditions Abroad


It may not be true for everyone reading, but many of us grew up celebrating Christmas in a certain way.  Part of the anticipation of the holiday season was wrapped up in the excitement of the traditions of the season.

Growing up, my little nuclear family of four used to get the fondue pot out every Christmas Eve. We would make an event of it and after dinner we cleaned up and headed to a candlelight service.  After church we were allowed to open one gift, saving the rest for the big-show Christmas morning.  Each year we went around the circle opening one gift at a time starting with the oldest family member and going around to the youngest.

Now a mom to seven children, I have not done as well as my parents did at creating traditions for my kids.  The main obstacle to creating tradition?  Living far from family and the places we learned and practiced our traditions.  Our family has been in Haiti for five of the eight celebrations that have happened since we moved, making it difficult to get any sort of traction on tradition making.

Each year we celebrate Christmas with different visitors to Haiti, we find ourselves facing unpredictable work schedules at the Maternity Center.  Traffic and uncertain political situations in the country change what we choose to do for Christmas Eve. All that to say, it can be fairly challenging to make a tradition in this environment.

We have succeeded at one singular new tradition, no matter where we find ourselves in the month of December.

The one thing we have done every year for eight years is create a little video production with our kids to give as a gift to our family and friends far away.  It started as a last minute idea in 2007, the year we were back in the USA having our last child. It has now become an annual tradition and we have the joy of seeing the kids change year to year in the  “Annual Christams Extravaganza”.  Our kids love watching the old ones and seeing how their voices and faces have changed.

Today I am curious what things you and yours have done to try to create traditions abroad in your new homes.

Have you come up with things that make it feel like Christmas even though you are far from those you typically celebrated with in the past?  

What new traditions have you created?




(The three photos in this post are from the 2009 Christmas production. Live animals for a nativity scene. Chocolate for bribing children.)

Find the Christmas rap of 2011 here. (Grown kids in Texas made an appearance too.)

Find 2012 here.