Whether you’re studying, teaching, volunteering, or bouncing around the globe on a gap year, living abroad is a far different beast than simply traveling. This is especially true when November rolls around and -- despite the hot, humid weather, or total lack of festive atmosphere -- your Facebook feed begins to blow up with Thanksgiving recipes, invites to ugly sweater parties, and festive DIY Pinterest pins, as the holiday season kicks into full swing.
Just because you’re not home doesn’t mean you can’t still embrace the festive spirit and have a blast celebrating the holidays while abroad.
Chances are, if you don’t have the option of returning home from your world travels for the holidays, a nice dose of homesickness and FOMO is also settling in as well.
But cheer up, you adventurous study abroad student / English teacher / international do-gooder! Just because you’re not home doesn’t mean you can’t still embrace the festive spirit and have a blast celebrating the holidays while abroad. Here are a few suggestions:
Host a Friendsgiving
American Thanksgiving is a tremendously easy holiday to get your friends -- both fellow expats and locals -- on board with. After all, who wouldn't want to celebrate a holiday centered around eating a huge meal with the most important people in your life? Yeah, that's what I thought.
So, organize a Friendsgiving and invite all your expat and local friends to join you! Depending on where you are, you may have a bit of trouble tracking down a Turkey, but as long as you tell everyone to bring a dish, you'll have no trouble gathering a group of friends around a table to nom out on their favorite foods together.
As Go Overseas own Mallory Meiser reminisces about the Friendsgiving she celebrated with expat friends from all over, "None of them have ever had pumpkin pie or stuffing before!" How fun is it that you can share these delicious treats with people who have never tried them?
Also, word to the wise: Schedule your Friendsgiving for the following Saturday. I promise you it's an easy holiday for non-Americans to get on board with, but convincing your boss / school / supervisor for the afternoon off may be a harder sell.
Take a Trip Somewhere New
If the being-abroad-blues are setting in a little too strongly, consider taking a trip somewhere out of your host city. Explore another part of the country that you've been wanderlusting after, or go to another country entirely! If you're teaching in Korea, why not spend a weekend in bustling Bangkok (where Christmas isn't celebrated by the majority).
Not only will you get to explore a new place, but the excitement of traveling somewhere new will be sure to cheer you up in no time flat.
If you're studying abroad in England, book yourself a cheap Ryanair flight to Germany and get into the festive groove by drinking Glühwein at a Christmas market. Not only will you get to explore a new place, but the excitement of traveling somewhere new will be sure to cheer you up in no time flat.
Invite Your Family to Visit
Being abroad doesn't necessarily mean you have to celebrate the holidays without your family.
Your family, or even just one person from your family -- your brother, your mom, or your best friend from home... they're family too, right? -- may already be planning to visit you during your time abroad. So why not suggest that they come out for the holidays?
Not only will you get to spend this special time together, but you'll get to spend it showing off your new home, new friends, and having perhaps the most memorable holiday of your lives (yes, even more memorable than that one time Uncle Bob lost his toupee and it somehow turned up in the dog's bed...)
Focus on the Thing You Miss the Most about Holidays
"Identify what you love about the holiday, and play those up. Cooking with people you love, giving gifts, movies, music, whatever," says former study abroad student Ketevan Marr.
Every person, and every person's traditions are different, so figure out what "the holidays" means to you, and find creative ways to incorporate that in to your life abroad. If you're teaching English, teach your students your favorite holiday song. Volunteers, why not start a Secret Santa with the other people in your organization or community?
Or perhaps you're studying abroad -- decorate your space then gather all your other student friends to cook dinner and watch movies together.
Treat Yourself and Your Friends
At the risk of sounding slightly materialistic here, being abroad during the holidays, sadly, might mean no gifts. No holiday cookies. No secret santa. And no random acts of holiday-inspired kindness and generosity.
Honestly, you may have said you don't care about these gifts before, but -- having celebrated a couple Christmas seasons without gifts myself -- you don't realize how nice the gesture is until it's gone.
One of the best parts of the holiday season is that you have an excuse to be nice to people and do something small to make them happy.
So treat yourself to something nice. Be your own gift-giver. Go out to a restaurant a little out of your budget or buy yourself a massage. Take a random day off from work or school and go for a hike or bike ride, if that's the sort of thing that makes you happy.
Likewise, why not share the spirit of generosity and start your own secret santa or bake cookies for all your friends? In my opinion at least, one of the best parts of the holiday season is that you have an excuse to be nice to people and do something small to make them happy. Even if the people around you don't share the same traditions as you, kindness is a pretty universal idea, and your gestures won't be left unappreciated!
Celebrate Like the Locals Do
And then, there are those students, teachers, or volunteers living abroad in a place that does celebrate the same holidays as you do.
If that's the case, embrace it and think of this time as a chance to learn more about your host culture. Talk to your host family or a local friends and see if they're willing to have you join their celebrations.
Chances are, they'll be flattered that you want to learn more about their traditions and will happily invite you along and will happily say yes!
Just remember to study up a bit on these traditions before you go. Ask if you'll have to bring anything, be expected to wear something specific, or anything that takes advanced preparation.
Share Your Traditions
Of course, you may want to also share your traditions with your new friends, students, or co-workers as well. Since travel in and of itself is a cultural exchange, sharing your favorite holiday tradition is a great way to help the new people in your life -- fellow students, co-workers, your community -- understand where you come from.
Don't be afraid to get creative either. While teaching in Madagascar, there wasn't much I could tell my students about American Christmas that differed too widely from their own celebrations, but since December is the peak of summer in the southern hemisphere, there was one crucial element of the holiday season missing: snow!
Sharing your favorite holiday tradition is a great way to help the new people in your life understand where you come from.
So for one lesson, I took my students through the steps of creating paper snowflakes with scissors and we created a make-shift winter wonderland out of old homework assignments. Not only did I get a small reminder of a piece of home I missed, but my students were engaged and curious throughout the lesson!
Don't Forget to Send Your Family a Postcard
Okay, I'm personally guilty of this one: while living abroad, I was having so much fun planning a holiday trip to the beach with my fellow expat friends, that Christmas sort of just crept up on me.
All of the sudden, I was opening a Christmas-themed care package from my parents and slapping myself on the forehead thinking "I forgot to send my family something!"
Don't let this be you! Even if you're on a seriously tight budget, gather a few local goodies to send home to your family, or -- if the shipping really is that ridiculously expensive -- buy gifts or gift cards online and ship them directly to your family's door.
Make a video greeting card and surprise them with it. Get creative, and do what you can. Just remember that your family misses you as much as you miss them and a small gesture will go a long way!
Connect with Home... but Don't Over-Connect
Then, there are people who have the complete opposite problem as myself. The idea of being away from home, friends, and family for the holidays brings on a whole new level of homesickness.
You may be tempted to glue yourself to Skype for the whole week of Christmas, or watch your family eat Thanksgiving dinner from your studio apartment in Taiwan -- but don't.
Of course we want you to Skype with your friends and family during the time you miss them most, but don't over do it! Overindulging won't help you lessen your homesickness. So call in for an hour (or three...) and then get out of your house and do something with those people who are right there, physically, in front of you. After all, living abroad in any capacity is all about making new memories -- and possibly even new traditions -- anyway, right?
Embrace a Non-Traditional Holiday Season!
Whether you spend your holidays crashing your host family's celebrations, exploring a new part of your host country, or sharing your favorite holiday tradition with your new expat friends, understand that celebrating the holidays while living abroad will never be exactly how you spent them at home.
It might just be one of the most memorable ones of your life!
Don't fight it, embrace it, and dive right in to a fantastically non-traditional holiday season. It might just be one of the most memorable ones of your life!
P.S. Don't forget to write your mom. ;D
Not abroad yet? Still looking for a program? Then head over to our listings of volunteer abroad programs, study abroad programs or teaching jobs aboard.
Photo Credits: Taylor Sundermeier, Anna Morris, and Jessie Beck.