When you’re travelling for Christmas, or just living in a new country, Christmas can feel a little foreign (pun intended). You might be in a completely different hemisphere than you’re used to. Which is the case for me – a winter Christmas feels a little gloomy and dark. Or you might just be in a country that isn’t majority Christian, so Christmas is just a blip on their radar.
TRAVELLING FOR CHRISTMAS
We asked a bunch of expat and travel bloggers to tell us about their eperiences travelling for Christmas and how they still managed to make the day special for themselves, friends and natives of the country they were in.
Christmas in Melbourne
Stella Jane, who writes Around The World in 24 Hours, is an American who experienced Christmas in Melbourne, Australia while travelling solo.
Growing up, I usually spent Christmas with my stepmother’s Norwegian-American family in snowy Northfield, Minnesota. It was one of my favorite times of the year! We’d eat traditional Norwegian Christmas pastries, exchange presents, attend church on Christmas Eve, and open stockings under the Christmas tree.
So I was nervous the first time I decided to spend Christmas away from home. Back in 2014 I had an opportunity to go to Australia over winter vacation. But how would it be spending my favorite holiday on my own in a strange country? And would it simply be too odd to have a warm-weather Christmas?
Fortunately for me, the city of Melbourne showed me a fantastic Yule. I did my research to find the tourist attractions that would be open on Christmas, like the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Aquarium. No one wants to be stuck in a hotel room depressed on Christmas! I looked for cuisines from countries that don’t necessarily celebrate Christmas. That’s how I experienced Turkish for lunch at the Mama’s Gozleme food truck. I also learned to embrace everything you can do for a warm weather Christmas, from picnicking in the Botanic Gardens, to watching It’s a Wonderful Life on a big screen in Federation Square.
The only problem I faced as a solo traveler was that it was a touch depressing celebrating Christmas utterly alone. Since then, I’ve been to Morocco and New Zealand over Christmas, but now I join a tour group so I won’t be solitary on Christmas Day proper. Whether I was enjoying fish tagine in Casablanca or dining on Thai in Nelson, New Zealand, I realized that the best Christmas present is sharing happy times with others, even if it can’t be your nearest and dearest.
Expat Christmas in a Non-Christian Country
Kelsey, from My Stylish Adventure, didn’t let the fact that she was in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, put a dampner on her day.
I spent four of my Christmas’ in the country Turkey between 2013-2017. I lived there as an American expat mentoring Christian college students in their faith and personal development. For those of you who don’t know, Turkey is a 99 per cent Muslim country, so the Christmas holiday is not celebrated there. Many people actually think Christmas and New Years are the same!
There were no lights, no holiday candy, no Christmas carols, and no celebration of the birth of Jesus. Having all of the commercialized aspects of Christmas taken away actually forced me to really think about what Christmas meant to me. It is the day I celebrate my Savior’s birth. I spent many quiet mornings sipping coffee, meditating on what it meant to be one of just a few thousand people celebrating that in a country of 80 million.
Of course, my expat friends and I could not go the entire season without some classic Christmas cheer! Some things we did to get into the spirit of Christmas were:
- Decorated our apartments, including a Christmas tree!
- Played Christmas music
- Decorated Christmas cookies
- Watched Christmas movies
- Did a white elephant gift exchange
- Hung out in pajamas on Christmas morning
- Made a classic American breakfast
One year we even managed to create make-shift gingerbread houses. These Christmases were quiet in the sense that society did not celebrate with me. But to me, I carried Christmas in my heart and the cheer was there all the same.
I had special people to celebrate with. I encourage you to find other expats or locals who would be willing to share in some of these special holiday traditions for whatever Christmas means to you. Even if your local friends don’t celebrate it, if you invite them they will come because they love you. At least that has been my experience.
A Tropical Christmas in Bali
Nadia, from Nomadic Nerd, is having a Christmas that many Aussie expats can only dream of – a summery one!
My family has been living in Bali for the last few years, so Christmas for us is a tropical affair. Usually when I think of Christmas, I think of snow, Christmas markets and lots of hot chocolate. That of course is not my reality. Christmas in Bali is humid, sometimes rainy, and always hot.
That doesn’t stop us from celebrating though, we put up our Christmas tree at least a month in advance, bake the gingerbread using our family’s special recipe and order a traditional Christmas lunch from the Bistro located about 15 minutes away.
Christmas Lunch is an open house, anyone and everyone is welcome, and my special playlist rings all day throughout our speaker system. No Christmas is complete without Turkey, Stuffing, Sausages, Ham, Gravy and Potatoes, so that’s what we have. We skip breakfast, have multiple servings for lunch, and leftovers for dinner. Of course all our meals for the next two days consist of leftovers as well.
The best part about Christmas in Bali? We head to the closest beach to munch on some grilled corn and watch the sunset. This has become standard now, it feels like home. Despite not being from Bali, despite it not being the traditional “White Christmas”, this is where my family is, this is our Christmas, and I love it!
Live Presepe (Nativity Scene) in Italy
Cris, from LooknWalk, lives in western Romania but is experiencing Christmas in one of her favourite regions of Italy this year.
Having visited Puglia several times before and falling badly for this Italian region, we’ve decided to play “expats” for a while in a coastal town called Vieste. It’s close to Bari, not very popular among foreigners and definitely a place to enjoy something different. Since I dislike cold winters – and I live most of the time in western Romania which can get anything from mild to bitterly cold winters – I’ve given myself a birthday gift: five weeks in Italy, including the Holidays!
While back at home we’d have a Christmas tree, in Italy we went for an Advent wreath (we are mixed Catholic – Orthodox family). That coupled with the staples Christmas foods in Italy made it extremely interesting and special. Panettone? Yes! Seafood for Christmas Eve dinner? You bet! We went all in.
But the most special thing was the Live Nativity Scene (Presepe). The Old Town was literally changed with kids and adults dressing up and acting. There were fishermen, dancers, people working on their crafts and of course, the last house was the Holy Baby and Family.
Everything was organized that you’d enter from the main gate and follow a set path through the live scenes and exit on the secondary gate. It was busy, it was exciting, it was something I’ve never seen before (or since). Unfortunately, it’s not an early event and , we’ve learned for our host, that we were mega lucky that they held it that year.
Volunteering in Japan
Canadian blogger Viola, from The Blessing Bucket, decided to brighten Christmas Day when she was living as an expat in Japan, by volunteering.
Christmas is a time all about family, traditions and festivities. For expats like me, it’s easy to feel homesick and lonely being abroad in December. However, there are many ways to surround yourself with positive energy and beat the holiday blues.
While I lived in Japan for the past two years, I celebrated Christmas by volunteering as a caroller with other expats. My friends and I would gather together, dress up in our most merry outfits and visit a nursery school in the city. We would sing classic Christmas songs like Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and Deck the Halls. The kids always love us. At the end of a visit, Santa (AKA one of the volunteers) would hand out presents.
It brings so much joy to see these adorable toddlers clapping, laughing, and shrieking with happiness. By the end when we have finished singing, dancing and high five-ing, all of our voices would be out, but our hearts would be so full.
One Christmas, we also visited kids staying in hospitals who were too sick to go home. To be able to brighten up their day was such a meaningful experience. Even though we sang and spoke in English and the kids speak Japanese, we were able to form a special connection. Because music, love, and kindness was the language we shared.
Coptic Christmas in Cairo
Dee Nowak is a Polish-American expat living in Egypt, who writes Vanilla Papers. She experiences a different kind of Christmas in her adopted home.
Egypt is around 10 per cent Coptic Orthodox Christian, and they celebrate Christmas on January 7. So even if that doesn’t fall on the same day, it still makes it easy to find Christmas decorations, trees and sweets in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
There’s also a small but active expat community in Cairo and it’s always fun to get together with them for Christmas parties and dinners (Facebook groups have been invaluable in helping me find other expats in Cairo).
The hardest part is not being able to have a live, fragrant Christmas tree like my parents always get back in Arizona. I have two cats, so that doesn’t work with them, and trees that carry a lot of scent are harder to find than the odorless or plastic versions.
Food is the one thing that always makes the holiday feel like home. Since I grew up in Poland, I prepare the soups, salads and fish that are traditionally served there at Christmas. There are a few things that don’t taste the same because the exact ingredients aren’t available, but I always stock up on borscht soup packs and have them ready for the holidays.
A Very Expat Christmas
Sarah and Justin write at Travel Breathe Repeat and are celebrating their first Christmas as expats in the Netherlands.
We just celebrated one year of living in the Netherlands. We’re a long way from our friends and families in New York City and feel that distance a bit more during the holidays. But we’ve found ways to keep our Christmas spirits high and thoroughly enjoy the holiday season in our new home. Here are our top three tips to help you do the same.
First, celebrate like the locals do. For us, that means going to as many Christmas Markets as possible! Visiting Christmas Markets in Germany and throughout Europe was one of our favorite things to do during the holidays even before we moved to the Netherlands, so we feel pretty lucky to be able to do so more easily and frequently now.
Second, make your evening celebrating Christmas or whatever holiday you observe special. Splurge on a nice dinner out or on a fancier than normal home-cooked meal (which is how we celebrate).
Third, make new traditions. It’s nice to keep traditions you had in your homeland, but this is a great opportunity to make new ones. You can take your cues from the local celebrations going on around you, or come up with something entirely your own. Even small things like new decorations or a tasty treat can make the holidays cozy and memorable.
A True Nomad’s Christmas
Layla writes at Alial Travel Gal, and has spent a decade travelling away from the UK.
As I’ve been nomadic for 10 years now, I have spent a lot of Christmas’s away from my homeland, in the UK, some in Australia and some in New Zealand.
Both Australia and New Zealand celebrate Christmas in a Western style, although I’ve noticed they don’t go to as much effort as the UK do [Ed’s note: Very true, we Aussies can be lazy at times]. Christmas decorations are usually less extravagant and as the Southern Hemisphere lacks the cold, and snowy weather at that time of year, there’s not so much focus on roaring fires, pumpkin lattes and mulled wine.
The general vibe feels like more of a fun and family focused celebration, however it doesn’t feel ‘olde’ traditional like I’ve experienced in Europe.
With 35 degree temperatures at Christmas time in Australia and New Zealand, it’s challenging to try to make it feel more like home, so now I just embrace Christmas in whatever country I’m in.
Previously I have tried to add in traditions from a typical UK Christmas. For example, I once volunteered to cook a full traditional, turkey Christmas lunch for four people, in the shared house I lived in, in Perth, Western Australia.
This isn’t something I’d recommend ever doing, as cooking up a storm, in 40 degree Christmas Day Australian, is neither easy or enjoyable! The Aussie’s enjoy a lighter style Christmas lunch spread and sometimes even a BBQ on the beach. So I decided to opt for this for my future festivities.
For my very first Christmas in Australia, my friend invited me to join an ‘Orphan’s Christmas’ on Christmas Day. This friend had created a Christmas Day celebration at her apartment for all the people she knew, who either had no family in the state or who were travelling and couldn’t go home for Christmas.
We all took food and drinks and had a huge get-together, followed by beers in the pool. It was a unique experience that brought us all together, as strangers with something in common.
For my last two Christmases in New Zealand, I have embraced the BBQ on the beach mindset. My partner and I spent the afternoon at the beach, armed with turkey sandwiches and rum & cokes as our Christmas lunch. It was bizarre to be sunbaking on the beach on such a festive day, that would normally be filled with family and cold weather.
Despite that, we make it our own and try to remember, although sometimes we might miss home at this time of year, we’re also creating different yet awesome new memories, wherever we are in the world.
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