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Family Holiday Traditions and Living Abroad

By Betsy Burlingame

AGS Worldwide Movers
AGS Worldwide Movers

Spending the holidays abroad can be a recipe for homesickness, but it doesn't have to be. In a recent survey on ExpatExchange.com, expatriates shared how they learned to love the holidays while living overseas. Mixing traditions, celebrating with new friends and maybe even getting a little help from DHL were just a few of their suggestions...

"Whatever holiday is most important to you, whichever holiday you'll feel the most homesick, be sure to spend it with your new friends... sharing your traditions with people of other cultures is what multiculturalism is all about. Do your best to recreate the feeling of the holiday, but don't get uptight about the details. If you can't find cranberry sauce for the turkey, try something local," recommends one expat in Tianjin, China. "Remember, the way you grew up following the tradition is probably somewhat different from how your parents celebrated the holiday in their childhoods. Traditions take years to evolve. Think of this as further evolution. Think of it as an adventure. That's probably what attracted you to moving abroad in the first place. And, if cranberry sauce is what makes or breaks the holiday for you, pack it with you when you come, or have family send it to you."

An expat in Zug, Switzerland advised, "Try not to insist on everything being 'as it is at home' - you won't be able to get certain foods. ... Instead, try out Swiss alternatives - ask your neighbours what their traditions are... and try to view the experience as just that - an experience and not the end of the world if you can't do everything just as you would in your home country."

Spending time with other expats during the holidays is a great way to feel at home abroad. A woman in Shanghai who is a Foreign Service employee and the wife of an active duty Marine described how rarely her family is able to spend time with loved ones during the holidays. "I have always tried to make a family where I am, be it inviting Marines not able to travel to their families, or Foreign Service individuals/families not able to travel back to the States," she said. "Facing the holidays far away from home for the first time can be difficult, but if you gather together with others in the same situation, it can be wonderful. Keeping your family traditions and sharing them with others can make the holidays not only bearable, but extremely amazing."

Experiencing the holiday traditions of your new country can be equally enriching. "We had the pleasure of having Christmas dinner with an English family and learned about 'crackers' and party hats and quizzes after dinner. It was great fun and something we've incorporated in our own Christmas dinner," an expat in London reminisced.

Acclimating to a completely different climate during the holidays can also have its perks. An expat in Melbourne said, "It's taken some getting used to it being hot at Christmas time here. The first five years I was here it got up to 40C (100F) plus. My wife, who is Australian, and I do the Aussie thing and go out for Christmas lunch. Unlike in the States, most places to eat are open Christmas day. But I sure don't miss the snow and ice in Indiana."

Expats aren't the only ones to adopt new traditions. In China, one member explained how local businesses and children are embracing Christmas. "In the past two years, the local Chinese have seemingly begun to really embrace the commercial aspects of Christmas - so much so that one can often see all the decorative trappings of the ho ho season hanging on the walls and doors of many commercial businesses well into the summer months. Here, there really can be a bit of Christmas in July! Also, the Chinese kids seem to be quickly catching on that if they work it right they can have the best of both worlds - West as well as East - in raking in the goodies from good ole Santa and... the traditional goodies bestowed on them during the Spring Festival (more commonly known in the western world as Chinese New Year). For many of the Chinese kids both of these major holidays make for them one very prosperous, fun winter season!"

There are many ways to enjoy the holidays abroad. Whether you abandon your traditions completely, mix them with those of your new culture or try to entirely recreate your traditional holiday festivities, spending time with friends -- new or old -- is a tradition that has no cultural boundaries and makes your new country feel much more like home.

About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder and President of Expat Exchange and is one of the Founders of Digital Nomad Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. Prior to Expat Exchange, Betsy worked at AT&T in International and Mass Market Marketing. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

Some of Betsy's articles include 12 Best Places to Live in Portugal, 7 Best Places to Live in Panama and 12 Things to Know Before Moving to the Dominican Republic. Betsy loves to travel and spend time with her family. Connect with Betsy on LinkedIn.


First Published: Dec 10, 2005

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