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All I want for Christmas…

An expat coaching column at Expat Focus – what a great opportunity to talk about ways to create a fulfilling life and maximise your experience of living in another country. However, if your December is anything like mine, the big picture and forward thinking are distant memories as the focus is on making it through the holiday season with your sanity intact. So with my apologies to those who don’t celebrate at this time of year, this month’s article talks about strategies for a lower stress holiday.

It’s important to acknowledge and recognise that being an expat can add an extra degree of stress to the holiday season. We often travel during the holidays. We celebrate in other people’s homes and need to fit in with their traditions. We live in countries where shopping for gifts is not that easy or postage is expensive. We need to think of luggage allowances when we purchase presents and we’d really like our family members to do the same. Here are some of my strategies (many learned the hard way) for addressing some of those issues.BUILDING AND MAINTAINING YOUR OWN TRADITIONS

My family often spends the holiday season in another family member’s home or in a rented apartment. We begin our travels as much as a week before Christmas, so many of our Christmas traditions are interrupted when we leave. Traditions are foundations of family stories and memories so creating your own is important.

• Before you leave, don’t neglect the big traditions altogether. Instead, find a way to incorporate a lower key version. When we travel at Christmas, we don’t decorate in the same way as we would for Christmas at home but we still put up a fake tree and a few other items that make our home festive.
• Bring some of your traditions with you. We always buy our children an ornament to unwrap and place on the tree on Christmas day. They bring their advent calendars with them and we find a place to go and sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve.
• Create some travel centred traditions and memories. When we stay in rented accommodation, we find an inexpensive way to have a tree to put presents under. The most memorable of those a 70cm, crazy looking table decoration and a tree “from the bush” (we were in Australia) which turned out to be covered in thorns.


Nothing brings differences into starker relief than spending Christmas in someone else’s home. The differences can show up as big, value driven issues (the extent of gift giving) or they can be little issues that are difficult to explain to your children (their gifts from Santa were wrapped but ours aren’t?)

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• If you can, stay with family members or friends who share similar values to yours (note – sharing parents doesn’t always mean sharing values).
• If you don’t already know, learn ahead of time how the holiday will be spent in the home where you are staying. Forewarned is forearmed and you’ll be able to explain differences to your children if necessary.
• Don’t forget that you’re a guest at a stressful time of year. Make sure you find ways to lighten your host’s load.


Expats often find themselves under pressure to visit family and friends when they are home and no more so than at Christmas. While it is lovely to see as many people as possible, constantly being on the road can make the holiday anything but relaxing.

• Prioritise the people who are truly important to you. Say “no” to people who were on the periphery of your circle when you were at home.
• Ask friends and family to visit you, either where you are staying (if you have a particularly generous host) or at a restaurant nearby. Most friends and family will oblige if they can.
• Try to see some friends and family in groups if you can – two or more birds with one stone.


It’s tough to find manageable gifts to pack in your suitcase and often even tougher to deal with bringing back presents from other people.

• Agree with your spouse and children that you will open gifts from each other and those which have arrived by mail either before you leave or after you return (you can create a family tradition here).
• Unless gift giving is very important to you, minimise the number of gifts you give by organising “secret Santa” draws among adult family members for example.
• Discuss your luggage limitations with family members before they purchase the 10kg life size stuffed tiger from which your child will undoubtedly become inseparable. Remind them that gifts should be small and light.


Often expats find that mailing gifts and cards from their country of residence can be as expensive as the gifts themselves and of course from some locations, the postal services is less than reliable.

• Purchase as many gifts as you can online in the recipients country.
• Unless you love cards, do yourself and the environment a favour and limit the number you send.
• E-mail a Christmas newletter to everyone else. If Great Aunt Mabel doesn’t have e-mail or thinks that newletters are an etiquette infraction on a par with failing to curtsey to the Queen, then send her a card.

One final thought.

When you are stressing about traditions or gifts or the craziness of the season, don’t forget to take a moment to remind yourself that the actions that are adding to your collection of grey hairs usually have love and the best of intentions behind them. If you’ve got any other tips for a low stress expat Christmas, please share them below.

Evelyn Simpson is a personal development coach who works with the accompanying partners of expats helping them to transition to expat life and to find happiness and fulfilment in their lives overseas. Evelyn has spent almost all of her adult life living as an expat on 3 continents and in 5 countries. She’s been a working expat, an accompanying partner and has founded her own portable business, The Smart Expat, while overseas. Evelyn and her Australian husband have two children who have yet to live in either of their passport countries.

You can learn more about Evelyn and her work at www.thesmartexpat.com where she blogs regularly about expat life.