As the festive season approaches, we are presented with both opportunities and challenges when it comes to looking after our wellness – with some particular challenges for expats. Being abroad during the holidays can be difficult, particularly if you are away from your family and even more so if your host culture doesn’t celebrate the festival in question. We’ll look at some top tips for seasonal wellbeing for expats below.
Firstly, it’s important to note that many people don’t celebrate Christmas, and feelings of seasonal exclusion can be commonplace, even if you were born and brought up in the place where you live. But if you do celebrate Christmas, and you’ve moved to a place which doesn’t, or in which cultural customs are very different, that can also lead to feelings of alienation and exclusion.
The long holiday season
One problem for expats is that Christmas in the West goes on for such a long time! In the past, ‘Christmas’ meant Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, after which many people returned to work. However, the commercial world has now caught up, with decorations in shopping malls going up before Hallowe’en in some cases, and the sales now seeming to be more or less a permanent feature from Thanksgiving onwards. All this relentless jollification can make the season a long one, and if you’re abroad, and your family back home have begun celebrations early, it’s easy to feel left out and isolated.
The fear of missing out
At Christmas, there is often a focus on spending time with family, and missing it because you’re elsewhere can generate all sorts of emotions: guilt at being away, loneliness, and sadness at missing milestone moments, particularly if kids are involved. However, you might also be feeling a guilty sense of relief at not having the usual high-intensity Christmas: there’s so much pressure these days – from other people, from the media and social media – to have the perfect day. If you find that applies to you, remind yourself that a lot of that pressure is commercially generated, and now is your chance, in a different country, to do something different, too.
If you’re on your own, taking part in charitable events, such as the Christmas Kettle in Singapore, can be a good way of joining in and helping others. More and more communities across the world are adopting the custom of raising money for charities via seasonal light displays in their neighbourhoods, and this might also help with feeling part of the community, especially if you are accompanied by your family. Hong Kong has a number of voluntary organisations who are looking for help at this time of year, too.
Embrace local seasonal celebrations
Exploring local seasonal activities can be very rewarding: try out Hong Kong’s Winterfest, for instance, which is a series of local events throughout the season. If you’re in Australia, you’ll find that Christmas coincides with the beginning of the summer holidays, and beach Christmases are famous. In Islamic states, such as Dubai, you might not find a public holiday, but you will certainly come across Christmas decorations. Don’t assume that your host country won’t adopt some aspects of the holiday, even though it might not be a Christian nation.
You can keep to some of your own Christmas traditions if you wish, even if it’s not quite the same, and give yourself a festive treat, such as buying something nice for yourself or treating yourself to a special experience (such as a visit to a spa or somewhere local that you’ve always wanted to visit but haven’t had the time to do so). If you’re abroad with your children, make it clear to them that Christmas is going to be different this year, but will be equally fun, and use the season to introduce them to some new ideas and customs – perhaps a blend of local culture and your own traditions. Some of this will be easy – with modern streaming services, for instance, finding your favourite Christmas movies is much more straightforward than it once was.
Get in touch with other expats over the holidays
If you’re part of an expat community, devising some Christmas ‘traditions’ for the group can also be a good plan, such as a communal meal. Expat Focus knows a number of US citizens based in the UK who ‘adopt’ an expat for Thanksgiving, for example, and many expats have an ‘orphan Christmas’, in which everyone gathers together to have a celebration.
If you’re not living in a country which celebrates Christmas, and if you have a friend or colleague who is curious about it, why not invite them to Christmas dinner and include them in the experience? Try to be open when it comes to sharing their seasonal celebrations, if they’re happy to include you.
Be flexible when it comes to your catering – you might not be able to find exactly what you need. We spoke to some expats recently who were reminiscing about their ‘great turkey hunt’ in Switzerland 2012 (having rushed from supermarket to supermarket, they finally found one very expensive bird – and they decided to choose something else). However, you will have some interesting alternatives, and again, it’s a good time to look up some seasonal variations as most cultures who celebrate Christmas have their own culinary traditions.
And if you’re not into the whole festive experience, earning the gratitude of your colleagues by offering to do Christmas shifts in the office can be worthwhile. We spoke to one expat who had to fly out to Dubai at Christmas-time – having completed the project, he then couldn’t get back into the UK due to adverse weather conditions, so took up his employer’s offer to spend Christmas in Egypt instead and had an unforgettable time.