I was never particularly sentimental about holidays. As a kid, I kind of saw it as a nuisance – getting dressed up so I could be preached to and teased by older family members. Now that I am that older family member, I miss getting together with everyone to hear what they’re up to and share my very strong opinion about how they could do it better. It’s a vicious cycle, what can I say?

I have a pretty big family on my mom’s side and a lot of us have big personalities, so it’s usually a laugh and a half when we’re all together. As we’ve gotten older and my little cousins aren’t so little anymore, the family has kind of spaced out around Ontario and the world.

Last Christmas, I was surprised to realize how much I missed our family get-togethers. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get away from my family – not because I don’t like them, but because I was a fiercely independent adolescent (and adult) so I’ve always wanted to forge my own path.

Spending time abroad – and a little maturity – hasn’t made me less fiercely independent, but it has taught me the value of listening to people’s stories and hearing different points of view. Everyone has something to teach me and I want to know more about my family to situate myself in the world. Plus, being away from them makes me think about and appreciate our shared moments a lot more – in fact, I made a genuine effort to connect with most everyone before I moved to London.

This week as Thanksgiving draws closer, I find myself thinking back on those moments. It’s the third year in a row that I’m away from my family on Thanksgiving in a country that doesn’t celebrate it. A traveller’s got to build some coping mechanisms for those times of year when nostalgia can hit you hardest, so I’m sharing some of mine with you.

Here’s how to survive holidays abroad:

If your adopted country celebrates the holiday…

…Do it their way

I spent two Christmases in Martinique and both were truly a lot of fun. I spent Christmas 2012 with my tutrice‘s family. You can read all about it here, but to summarize, we sang Martinican Christmas carols, ate blood pudding and a lot of pork, while drinking a decent amount of Shrubb.

Get involved and understand the customs of your host country. You’ll be happy to be around plenty of people and it will be eye-opening to see how a familiar holiday is celebrated in another culture with different traditions.

I kind of threw this together at the last minute. Don't worry, no one else understands...
I kind of threw this together at the last minute. Don’t worry, no one else understands…

…Introduce people to some of your traditions, but don’t impose on theirs

If you can find a real pine tree and cut it down in the Caribbean, then you probably deserve a celebration in your name and simple mortal holidays are beneath you. If not, then let people know how you celebrate where you’re from. This was a given for me – being a teaching assistant, the teachers wanted the students to learn about stuffing and gravy, yule logs and Jingle Bells.

At holiday festivities, rather than bringing something local bring something from where you’re from. I made a cheesecake – maybe you can bring candy canes, homemade egg nog or British mince pies. Some assistants from the UK had their parents send them Christmas crackers (a wrapped tube with a small toy or joke inside that when you pull apart makes a cracking sound) – apparently their students loved it!

If your adopted country doesn’t celebrate the holiday…

…Show them how you do it

Throw a Thanksgiving dinner, invite everyone you know – expats and locals alike – and teach them a little bit about what you do. It’ll be interesting and exciting to be able to celebrate a holiday that they’ve only seen on TV or maybe even never heard of!

Every year, one of the teachers at a lycée in Martinique throws an American Thanksgiving dinner. She invites teachers and students from Martinique, as well as all of the assistants who are mostly from the UK & Ireland, Spain, Canada, America and every now and again, Australia. Turkey is quite hard to find, but some bird gets cooked and it ends up being a combination of Martinican festivities and American traditions. There’s no reason you couldn’t do this in your adopted hometown!

This was Hallowe'en - I was dressed as a Trick-or-Treater...My shirt says I <3 CANDY
This was Hallowe’en – I was dressed as a Trick-or-Treater…My shirt says I <3 CANDY

We had a Hallowe’en party and everyone dressed up, we ate candy and played childhood games – including bobbing for apples! When St. Patrick’s day rolled around, we threw a party, wore green clothes, drank green beer – I even made a green cake! Okay, it was actually more grey-ish…but it was the thought that counted!

St. Paddy's Day 2012
St. Paddy’s Day 2012

…Celebrate in private

Maybe the country you’re in doesn’t allow celebrating certain festivities. I don’t know where that would be, but hey, I am a small girl in a big, big world. Maybe you just don’t feel like you have enough energy or don’t know enough people to throw a party.

I don't know, something about this photo just encapsulates some kind of Thanksgiving stereotype - me in the kitchen, him on the couch...
I don’t know, something about this photo just encapsulates some kind of Thanksgiving stereotype – me in the kitchen, him on a lounge chair in front of the TV…

My partner and I didn’t feel like doing a big thing for Canadian Thanksgiving last year but I did want to mark the occasion in some way – it was our first Canadian Thanksgiving together after all! (Sadly, I’ve failed to organize something this year as well). We bought a quality piece of pork, cooked a nice meal and said our thanks and then just relaxed together.


Holidays are often a time for family, friends and good vibes. If it makes you feel good to do something nice for other people, there are probably lots of charities or organizations that would love to have your help on any day!

…Find your people

Here in the UK, there is an annual celebration of Canada Day in London. I haven’t actually been to it but I’ve heard that it’s a good time, people get really into dressing up and you can really show off you’re Canuck (sounds kind of dirty, eh?). There’s nothing like living abroad to bolster your patriotism!

Fancy dress party, Christmas 2011
Fancy dress party, Christmas 2011

The first Christmas I spent in Martinique, I celebrated on the 24th with a Martiniquais friend. Then, a group of the assistants got together for our Christmas celebration on the 25th. There was food, Christmas outfits, and plenty of booze and bickering. In fact, the only thing that didn’t feel Christmas-y about it was the fact that we were drinking sparkling wine on the beach in 35-degree weather.

…Take a vacation

Perhaps you’ve just arrived and you don’t know anyone or maybe you’re not sure where to find cranberry sauce or Easter eggs. Well, just do what lots of families do for the holidays – take a vacation! A lot of assistants used our copious vacation time to visit other islands or even to go home, so if that’s what you’re used to doing, why change now?!

…Skype your family and/or friends!

People are attending weddings via Skype – there’s no reason you can’t have Christmas dinner with your family. It depends on the time difference, your internet capabilities and whether you’re working on that day, but keep in mind that it is possible. If you can’t be there in person, this is probably the next best thing!

The point is, just do what makes you happy! So, folks, how do you deal with being abroad during the holidays? Anything I should add?


7 thoughts on “How to Survive the Holidays Abroad”

  1. It is unfortunate to be away from home during one of the big holidays. Then it is most fun to me with the family! I think that if you happen to be abroad during these holidays you definitely must celebrate with the people there. I believe that most people will appreciate this! Thank you for sharing!

  2. I think the hardest holiday I had to miss so far was Canada Day 3 years ago. My friends and I go all out for that weekend. As we’ve gotten older and moved away, some got married and had kids already and that’s the one weekend when we drop everything and make the time to hang out. That Canada Day I knew I was gonna be flying from Istanbul to Copenhagen via Vienna so I had packed some of those mini Canadian flags and temporary maple leaf tattoos. I stuck the flags in my hair using them like chopsticks and tattooed my arms as well as wearing one of those team canada HBC t-shirts from the Vancouver 2010 olympics. I got stopped by no less then a dozen fellow Canadians and a bunch of others who realized that it must be some sort of national holiday for me. It sounds silly to dress up like that but it really was the next best thing I could think of doing since I couldn’t be at home celebrating it 🙂

    1. I think that sounds great – and you probably put a little bounce in the step of your fellow Canucks! I would have been glad to run into you!

  3. We were in Prague last Christmas. We bought a very small xmas tree from a street vendor on Christmas Eve and snuck it into our hotel room. We decorated it with various items from our trip (coasters, entrance tickets). It made it feel a lot more like Christmas for us.

  4. Love this! I tried showing Spain friends St. Patrick’s Day, found the one Irish bar in Seville. They were good sports and wore Shamrock stickers!

    1. Ha – that’s awesome! The locals we invited for St Paddy’s day were just like…”Cool, excuse to drink!”

      Thanks for commenting, Eileen!

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