The holidays are arguably the time of year when it’s most difficult to be an expat. Being away from home and the people you love is always a challenge, but it hits expats particularly hard at this time of year. The holidays are about comfort and familiarity, family and tradition, and shared memories; they simply don’t seem like much fun when you’re working hard at finding comfort in unfamiliar surroundings, far away from family and anyone with whom you share memories or traditions.The holidays can be quite trying even for expat families, but at least they have their little family units to celebrate with; solo expats, on the other hand, often have it the worst. And the first holiday season in a new country can be particularly miserable. It’s likely to be a time when you’re still finding your feet, still grappling your way through culture shock. Then the holidays come along and make you feel even more out of place and homesick. It’s enough to make many expats want to just pack up and head home.
Some expats do choose to simply return home for a couple of weeks over the holidays, so that they can spend the season with family, the way they’ve always done. However, this isn’t always possible. Not everyone can afford to fly home and back every year, and besides, not everyone can take that much time off work. However, being away from home doesn’t necessarily need to mean that you end the year with a season of the blues. Here are a few tips to help you have a warm and happy holiday season wherever you are.
Don’t spend the holidays alone
This is the single most important piece of advice for dealing with the expat blues during the holidays. Even if you have no friends and family with you, whatever you do, don’t give in to the urge to isolate yourself and let it all go. Especially if the holidays and Christmas have always been important for you and you’re now living in a country where the season isn’t a big deal, it can be quite tempting to stay at home and feel sorry for yourself, to spend all your time pining for home and all the familiar signs of the holidays. Don’t. It certainly won’t make you feel any better, and it is highly likely to make you feel much worse. Meet someone and do something, no matter how silly or pointless it seems. It’ll certainly be a lot more fun than being all alone. If you haven’t made any friends yet, the holiday season is a good time to get out there and do so.
Keep the traditions you love
If you want it to feel like the holidays, you need to work at it a bit yourself. It may seem pointless to continue holiday traditions when no one around you seems to care about them, but like spending the holidays alone versus spending them with company, it will certainly help to do so anyway. Bake a Christmas cake, brew up some mulled wine, get together a few holiday films, put together a holiday playlist – do the things you’ve always done at this time of year, and do them with other people as much as you can. These little things will go a long way towards cheering you up.
Get in touch with other expats
If you look around a bit, you’ll find that you’re certainly not alone in feeling the way you feel. Many expats feel exactly the same way during the holiday season, and you can get together and cheer each other up. Expats from your own country are of course ideal – they’re more likely to know exactly what you’re talking about when you reminisce about the holidays back home.
However, expats from elsewhere may also share similar traditions to you, will be feeling the same way, and many of them will be happy to share the holiday season with you. In most places, it’s easy enough to find other expats – expat clubs, language schools, online communities, and so on are a good place to look. Most cities also have certain residential and recreational areas that are popular among expats for a variety of reasons, and if you live in one of these areas, finding other expats should be easy.
Share the season with locals
The holiday season is a good time to make friends with a few locals too. In many places, you’ll find local communities that celebrate the same or similar holidays and traditions as you do, and the cultural exchange can be great fun. Even if there are none of the same occasions being celebrated, you’re quite likely to find local people who are happy to be introduced to traditions that are outside their culture. Share your enthusiasm for the holiday season with them. Call some of your local friends over to help you decorate your home. If any of them enjoy cooking, call them over to help you bake a cake or cook up some other seasonal specialty. Throw a Christmas party, and call some of your local friends over, as well as some of your expat friends. You could even turn it into a potluck party, with a mix of dishes that are local and from your part of the world. The theme of the party may not have as much resonance for everyone, but what’s important is that matters to you and that you have people to share it with.
Stay in touch with friends and family back home
As an expat, it’s always important to stay in touch with family and old friends, but it’s particularly important at this time of year. If you’re missing them, let them know. Keeping in touch with people across the world is so easy these days that there’s really no reason not to do it. A video call when family back home gets together for a traditional meal can be particularly fun. However, be warned that it can be painful too – after all, a video call isn’t quite the same as being in there in person, and is quite likely to remind you of how far away you are. It’s a bittersweet experience, but try to focus on the fact that you’re able to see them and talk to them, rather than on the fact that you’re so far away.
Explore local traditions
The same festival can be celebrated in wildly different ways in different parts of the world. Christmas in the Philippines is hugely different from Christmas in Australia. Find out what the local traditions are, and embrace them. Even if you’re in a place that doesn’t celebrate the same occasions as you, there are bound to be other local feasts, traditions, and practices at this time of the year that you can participate in and enjoy. Every country and culture has its seasonal celebrations, and these are a great way to get to know your new home, and perhaps incorporate a few new traditions into your life too.
Decorate your home
Decorating your home is a great way to bring on that holiday feeling. It isn’t necessary to spend a whole lot of money on decorations; if you stick to the basics, a little money can go a long way. Put up a Christmas tree, hang up a little tinsel around the house, string up some lights. Even if you’re in a place where you can’t find the usual traditional Christmas decorations, it’s always possible to put something together yourself, and it’s nice to have a bit of a homemade touch.
Decorating is also a fun way to tap into local traditions. For example, in many parts of the world, a paper lantern, often in the shape of a star, is a popular ornament at Christmas. There are also seasonal local plants and flowers that you could get for your garden and house. They may not mean much to you at first, but whatever makes the season special is great, and these can be the start of a new tradition. You can also turn the decorating of your house into a fun, collaborative, social affair. Call a few local and expat friends over to help you decorate.
Volunteer for an organization or cause
For many people, the holiday season is not just about food and drink, family and celebrations, but also about giving, sharing, and caring for the less fortunate. If the holiday season gives you a lot of free time but you don’t have much to do or people to do it with, this is a great way to spend your time. Find a local organization that works for a cause you care about, and find out about whether they need volunteers and whether they can use any skills that you have. If they do, try to spend a few hours doing volunteer work for them. Get involved with a local soup kitchen, literacy program, children’s home, or animal shelter. It won’t just take your mind off your holiday blues, but it’ll also put them into perspective. In addition, it’ll give you a warm feeling and a sense of belonging that all the mulled wine and parties in the world can’t.
If you really must spend the holidays alone, do something really special
If you find yourself alone over Christmas, it still doesn’t need to be a dreary holiday season. You can still do many of the things on this list and enjoy them by yourself. You could even take off somewhere on a special solo trip. Staying at home by yourself can get pretty lonely, especially in a foreign country and especially at this time of year. However, travelling solo is an entirely different story – it’s not loneliness, it’s solitude, and it’s a great adventure! Pick a place where you’ve always wanted to go, and plan a really special trip.
Don’t expect things to be a perfect recreation of the holidays back home
Remember that the point of doing all this isn’t to perfectly recreate the holidays in your new home – that’s not just impossible, but it’s also a recipe for disappointment. The point is simply to have fun and get into the spirit of the season in a new way. The holiday season in a new country is bound to be different from what you’re used to, like so many other things in the country. Remember that these differences are at least part of the reason why you moved in the first place. It’s important to hold on to the things you love, but it’s also important to embrace differences and new experiences, and to create new traditions in your new life. This is bound to be a bit difficult in the first year, but in the years to come, you’ll find it easier to enjoy this new holiday season, and see it as not better or worse, but just different.
Are you a solo expat? What do you do to overcome the expat blues? Let us know in the comments!