Christmas can be a lonely time for the expat abroad—especially if they’re living where people don’t celebrate the holiday at all. 

The trade-off to relocating more than a short domestic flight away is that you miss out on all those family holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays and the like.

But remember, if your family gatherings involve regular fist fights, Uncle Harold passing out in the punch bowl and Aunt Martha sobbing in the bathroom and vowing never to come out, then you’re probably better off being exactly where you are.

If that sounds like your holiday experience, then I suggest you put one or two more time zones between you and your home. You’ll thank me later. 

But if you love and miss those family holidays, then read on: I’ve got some tips that long-term expats use to get through the lonely holiday season.

1. Spend Christmas with local friends to see how they celebrate—or invite expat friends over for a holiday feast of your own

During our first year in Malta, my wife and I were invited to our landlord’s home to spend Christmas with her family. 

We already knew them pretty well from late-night summer dinners and long chats over coffee. But Christmas dinner was different. It’s more intimate, and everyone’s feeling nostalgic about the past, and curious about the approaching new year.

Spending the holiday with a local family brought us closer to our new friends, and it gave us new insights into how people celebrate in this part of the world.

But what if no one invited you over?

christmas alone expat

No need to sit around by yourself during the holidays when you can find new holiday home instead—even if it’s a bar in Bruges, like the ones above. (Carlos Andrés Reyes/Flickr)

Why sit at home sulking with a bottle of wine when you could invite some local friends—or other lonely expats—over to your place to show them how Christmas is done, Canadian-style?

“Okay, this is the point where Uncle Paul usually has too much punch, makes Alex cry, and then falls into the Christmas tree. So, here goes…” 

Of course, there’s no need to take your simulation so far that you end up in a foreign hospital. Just whip up your traditional family dinner and give everyone a small gift, or a stocking full of goodies.

Your friends will love the glimpse into your culture. And you might just end up starting a new tradition of your own.

2. Decorate your place like you do back home

Fire up your creativity and decorate your foreign home the way you would in your country of origin.

This is especially effective if you’re living in a place like the Mediterranean, which is warm and green at Christmastime and doesn’t feel like Santa at all.

If you can’t find Christmas decorations—or your pagan Saturnalia statues of choice—then ask your family to send some over. Or, even better, improvise using materials you’ll find locally.

Decorate a potted plant with paper streamers, LED lights and a star, and put a few presents under it, wrapped in colourful paper…

Create a playlist of your favourite holiday music and loop it on your computer…

Bake some Christmas cookies (and send a few to me!)…

You get the idea.

And remember: if you’re in the Mediterranean, an olive branch over the doorway can substitute as mistletoe if you’re looking to steal a kiss. 

3. Buy yourself a present

If no one’s going to send you a present, then why not take matters into your own hands?

You don’t need to dress up as Santa, or try to sit on your own knee for a photo. You don’t even need to wrap the darn thing and wait for Christmas day so you can unwrap it and fake surprise.

“Oh…! Thanks very much for the socks and underwear…” Sigh.

expat loneliness abroad

A lone Christmas tree stands in Bergen, Norway. (Fougerouse Arnaud/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Just go on Amazon and order yourself a huge box of books, like I do. While you’re at it, why not include a copy of my travelogue, Vagabond Dreams? That’ll make you thankful for the travelling lifestyle you’ve chosen to lead.

4. Do something cool to take your mind off things

The first time I spent the holidays away, I was visiting a friend in Arizona during my university winter break. I rented a car and drove around the Navajo Nation, exploring Anasazi ruins and doing some deep thinking out in the desert. I ate Christmas dinner alone in a hotel, and I spent the 25th walking in Monument Valley as snow dusted the rocks. It was quiet and introspective, and exactly what I needed at a troubled time of my life.

When I lived in Japan, I spent a damp chilly Christmas exploring Kyoto’s Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Okay, sure, that might not be very Christmas-like. But the Buddha is as fat as Santa. And those lonely temple bells put me in the right nostalgic frame of mind.

Holidays abroad can be surreal, too. My wife and I spent our oddest Christmas on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, where a guy in a Santa suit rode up and down the main street of Nouméa on a moped yelling “Ho ho ho!”

And one year, we went to Berlin, where we drank hot mulled wine at outdoor Christmas markets all over the city. We had a big German Christmas Eve dinner at a restaurant in Kreuzberg. And I spent the 25th at an art museum while Tomoko wandered the streets shooting photos.

But you don’t need to go away to take your mind off the fact that you’re not among family and friends. 

Last year we spent the day hiking here in Malta. Christmas was the perfect opportunity to explore a rather remote part of the island, because everyone else was eating big dinners with their family. We had the cliffs and views entirely to ourselves.

So, remember: all is not lost if you can’t fly home to be with your family this year. Go out and create some new memories instead. 

5. Join your family or friends on Skype

Finally, if you can’t go home in person, why not attend by video? It’s what all the coolest rock stars do for those award shows.

You could even get a family member to make an overblown announcement to raise your status: “Ryan couldn’t be with us this year… But we’re bringing him to you live via satellite!”

Now, I’m not saying this will put you at the level of U2. But if you can’t actually make it back home, and you’re the sentimental type, you may as well still enjoy that familial ambiance.

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