14 Christmas Traditions for Expats Around The World
Moving to another country to make a new life is an adventure. You get to explore your new home country, learning new ways of living, new cultures and traditions. However, for most people who celebrate Christmas, Christmas without your family around can be a little depressing. Most people experience a pang of loneliness during the holiday season when they live abroad. This is normal. But before you get too sad or miserable about not being with family during the festive season, I’m going to share with you some ideas on how to make new Christmas traditions for expats living abroad.
What Christmas Used To Look Like
I think one of the starkest differences in Christmas celebrations as expats can come from living in a country with a completely different climate to where you grew up. I grew up in Southern Africa, which means hot, sunny Christmases. Now I live in the UK, which is cold, short days, with not a lot of sunshine usually. Most of the time, the weather genuinely doesn’t bother me, but Christmas day is when I miss the African bush Christmas the most.
As a child growing up in Zimbabwe, Christmas was celebrated by spending time with family. I’ve written about our family Christmas traditions before, but things changed when we moved to the UK. I’m lucky that I still have my sister in the same country, so usually, she will come and spend a few days with us over the festive season, including Christmas day itself. But not always.
Other than that, it’s usually just our little family. Most of our friends and neighbours spend their Christmas celebrating with their respective families. Whilst we often get invited to celebrations and parties before and after Christmas, Christmas Day is usually just us. And that’s fine. I won’t lie; I do wish I could give my daughters a taste of what it’s like to have a big family Christmas day party, but I don’t believe they are lacking in love (or presents) because we can’t celebrate in that way.
Keep Some Of The Old Traditions
Over the years, we have created our own Christmas traditions as expats, but one of the best ways to still feel Christmassy is to hold on to some of the traditions you had from your home country. This is a great way to combine the old with the new. Here are a few ideas:
Decorate the Christmas Tree & That Special Decoration
When you’re packing to leave your old home and move to your new life, pack at least 1 Christmas decoration that means the most to you. Then every year, when you are decorating your new home, you’ll be able to have that little piece of ‘home’ with you. For us, it was the star on the top of the tree. We take turns every year as to who puts the star on the top of the tree.
Play Family Board Games
Granted, we used to play board games in our swimming cosies whilst floating on lake Kariba, but now we play family board games at our kitchen table. It’s all about adapting to your surroundings, and if there’s one thing expats are good at, it’s adapting.
That Meal from back home
In the UK, a roast turkey is the most traditional meal for Christmas day, but where I’m from, it’s definitely not. The difference is often keenly felt when you sit down to enjoy your special meal of the festive season, and it’s nothing like you’re used to. Even if you decide to embrace all things Christmas about your new home country, carve out time for one meal during the festive season that’s uniquely from your heritage/home.
Shelley from Wander & Luxe and her Australian family lived in York, UK, for a few years. When I asked her what her Christmas traditions looked like whilst living as an expat in the UK, here’s what she had to say:
My husband and I are both born and raised Aussies, but we spent the last 5 years living overseas in York, UK. Christmas in the UK is a stark contrast to Australia … for starters, it is winter in the UK and summer in Australia.
We loved the atmosphere in York at Christmas. The Christmas lights, everyone dressed in festive jumpers, the outdoor markets and the smell of mulled wine.
Despite it being the middle of winter, we liked to maintain a few Australian traditions. For example, we are accustomed to eating seafood on Christmas Day as opposed to a roast Turkey. We even cooked a BBQ in the snow!
The Brits truly know how to celebrate Christmas and make it magical – we will certainly miss that in Australia this year!
Here are some New Christmas traditions For Expats
Here are some more ideas of Christmas traditions you can start as expats in a new country:
Go to a Christmas light switch on
Be it in your local town or a big extravaganza, going to a Christmas light switch on is a great tradition to start. And if you miss the actual switch-on date, why not just set aside a set date, i.e. the Saturday before Christmas, to go out to see the Christmas lights?
Make your own Christmas Pudding
Granted, if you’re making an actual Christmas pudding, you might have to start a few months before Christmas, but my point here is to make it a family affair, something you all get involved in.
If you’re not a fan of traditional Christmas Pudding, why not start a new Christmas Tradition of a Christmas Bake-Off? We do this with our Christmas lunch dessert. We make a minimum of two, but sometimes three desserts. Each family member, or you can work in pairs if you have small children, makes their own dessert/pudding, and on Christmas day, you choose a judge to decide which is the best one. Of course, they all win unless the judge is biased (like my husband). lol
Charitable Christmas Gift Shopping
We started a new tradition this year. We went into York city centre, close to where we live, and armed with £10 each, we had the challenge to buy each other gifts from the charity store. My kids absolutely loved it, and I think it’s safe to say this is a tradition that will last for years to come.
Christmas Eve Box
This isn’t something that only expats do, but if you’re struggling to get into the festive feeling in the run-up to Christmas, then a Christmas Eve Box is a great way to ignite that festive flame the day before Christmas. You can put whatever you want in your Christmas Eve box, but typically a few ideas are hot chocolate, Christmas PJs, a book, some Christmas socks, and maybe some pampering products like a bath bomb or a facemask.
Visit a Christmas Market
Now I know we’re fortunate to live in the UK, which is full of Festive activities over the Christmas period, but a visit to a Christmas market is a great family tradition. Even if you don’t buy anything more than hot chocolate, the sights and sounds and smells are amazing.
Go on holiday!
Whilst a lot of people stay home and spend time with family over the Christmas period when you’re an expat, there isn’t often a lot of family to spend time with. If you can travel and explore the world over the Christmas period, then it’s usually a great (albeit expensive) time to travel as there are extra days off work, so you use up less of your annual leave. If you book well in advance, like the year we went to Dubai for Christmas, you have an awesome holiday to look forward to and plenty of time to pay it off.
Go to a Christmas Pantomime
I get that this isn’t something every country has, but if you are in a country where they do a Christmas show or Christmas pantomime, this is a great Christmas tradition to start.
Christmas Movie Marathon
Before my husband and I had kids, we spent one Christmas alone, and that year we binge-watched as many Christmas movies for kids or families as possible. Now that we have kids, we still do this one day over the holiday season. Everyone gets to choose one movie, and in between snack breaks and taking the dog for a walk, we watch Christmas movies as a family.
Donate Your Time
Donating your time to charity is a lovely Christmas tradition. This can be done in various ways, from helping your community put up Christmas lights in the neighbourhood to volunteering at a homeless shelter. Granted, these are probably for families with older kids or childless couples.
Video Call Family
I’ve left this on until last because it sounds like an obvious thing that most expats will do at Christmas, video call their family. If you live away from family, video calling has become something we do regularly. I mean, my sister lives 4 hours away, still in the same country, but we video call each other almost daily. When it comes to Christmas Day, though, why not consider doing a special video call where you set a time and all meet online?
The wonders of technology have meant that it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with loved ones far away, but Christmas is about making it extra special. So why not do something a little different, like play an online board game, or open presents together, or even have your Christmas meal together online – granted, time differences can make this unreasonable, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.
I hope these ideas of new family Christmas traditions for expats have inspired you with different things to do as an expat family if you’re living far away from your loved ones and extended family. If you have any other ideas you’d like to share, please drop a line in the comments. I’d love to find out what others do.
Merry Christmas, wherever you are in the world.