Pueblito Paisa, Antioquia

How Travelers Can Survive Christmas Away From Home

I lived away from my home country for nearly six years. That’s quite a long time, but I nearly never felt homesick. In fact, there was really only one time of year that I felt homesick, and that was Christmas.

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I’m guessing it’s true for many people that Christmas is a family time. Perhaps Americans might add Thanksgiving to the list, and other nationalities might have other special days, but certainly for a high number of travelers out there, Christmas is a time where you would ideally like to be with your family.

Pueblito Paisa, Antioquia
Pueblito Paisa, Antioquia © *L*u*z*a*

My first Christmas away from home was spent in Japan, and I remember it well, because it was terrible. For a start, since the Japanese don’t exactly celebrate Christmas, I had to work. I say the Japanese “don’t exactly” celebrate Christmas because they do manage the commercial side of it pretty well, so there were Christmas decorations everywhere and Christmas carols playing at my workplace, giving me plenty of reminders that yes, it was Christmas, but no, I wasn’t enjoying my mother’s cooking and a day of gift-giving, I was at work instead.

Making Christmas Better: Tips for Travelers

But after that, I figured out that there were plenty of ways to make sure my traveler’s Christmas turned out better. Here are some of the things that helped me and might help you too:

Create your own special events to celebrate Christmas

In my second year in Japan I was wiser. I still had to work, but I made sure I had something to look forward to. In fact, it was the special treat after work of ordering home-delivered pizza, which is terrifyingly expensive in Japan. I was so proud of ringing up the pizza shop and ordering in my (slow) Japanese, and then when the delivery guy came he was wearing a Santa hat — it was perfect.

Arrange a time to call home when all the family will be there

Make sure you know what time and where the Christmas events back home are, and plan ahead with a parent or sibling to ring at an arranged time. Even if this turns out to be the middle of the night for you, it’s worth it to chat to everyone, although you’ll probably recite the same story ten times as each relative hands you onto the next one and asks you what you’re up to.

Save any Christmas cards or gifts that people send you to open on Christmas Day

Knowing that there wouldn’t be much celebrating going on around me, I didn’t open any cards during December and had them waiting in a stack to open when it was really Christmas, and that cheered me up no end.

Plan a special vacation — a really Christmassy one!

One year while I was living in Germany, I totally splurged on my dream Christmas in Finland. Well, I did it the budget way really, but ended up learning how to drive a reindeer sleigh on Christmas Day and having a chat with “the real Santa” in Lapland, too! For an Aussie girl like me, the idea of having a really white Christmas (instead of one with temperatures over the century) was a childhood dream come true — and that year, I didn’t give a second thought (or even a first one) to the family celebrations back home.

Arrange a gift exchange with the people around you

Even if you’re in a backpackers’ hostel on some isolated Thai beach, get a group of people organized to give “Secret Santa” gifts to each other — set a small maximum dollar value, draw names out of a hat and spread some Christmas spirit together.

Remember all the hassle of Christmas that you get to avoid

If you were really back in your home town you would have to buy tons of presents for people (remember the crowds at the shops?), argue with the family over the location and timing of Christmas events, and possibly even hang out with relatives who you don’t really care that much about. A Christmas abroad is just for you, and you should enjoy the freedom of being able to spend it how you want — well, more or less.

Snowbow, Jura Mountains © Jenny Downing

Enjoy Christmas, Wherever You Are!

With any luck, homesickness won’t hit you at Christmas. If it does, try some of my tips to cheer yourself up, and remember how lucky you are to be traveling. I’ll be at home this Christmas, celebrating with some family and friends, but just remember — I would probably prefer to be out there and traveling, too. Merry Christmas and happy travels!

  1. This will be my second Christmas in a row away from “home” (although not my first taste of Christmas away – I spent one a few years ago in South Africa…you’ll have a great time Brian).
    The difference for me in contrast to your Christmases Amanda, is that I’m used to the white Christmas and struggling to embrace an Aussie (and last year a Hawaii) one! It just seems wrong when the sensory indicators of Christmas are cicadas chirping, blow flies buzzing, and march flies biting! (smiles)

  2. Nora, I understand you completely, even though I grew up in Australia, the three or four Christmases (4?) living in Europe completely spoiled me. Now Christmas in Oz is totally wrong. And, as you’ll see, we Aussies can’t seem to let go of the white Christmas idea anyway and have snowmen pictures everywhere etc. Christmas is never *really* Christmas down here … hope the blow flies don’t land in your Christmas pudding Nora!

    @Brian, enjoy your African Christmas, too!

  3. I’m in Melbourne now and you could be forgiven for not even knowing it was Christmas next week? Saying that, I’m England’s roving Christmas Grinch so it’s all good by me.

    With climate change roaring through the advent calender, I think it’s time more people came to Australia to practice the non-white Christmas’ of the future!

    ‘Oi Santa, shove another shri…’ No. Stop. I couldn’t. ‘…shrimp on the barbie!’ Shame on me.

  4. Ooh, Ant, you’ll have to stay in Oz a bit longer to know that we don’t say shrimp … we throw prawns on the barbie! And it’s a perfectly acceptable Christmas Day dish (usual in our family!).

    But I can well imagine that it doesn’t feel like Christmas to you in Melbourne … over here in Perth there are too many people at the shops and some almost worn-out decorations in the city, but that’s where the Christmas spirit ends.

  5. This is my third Chrissie (see? I’m already Australian) away from home (Vancouver), and first in Oz (Melbourne). Last year was at Jungle Beach in Vietnam, and we did our best. We wrapped up gifts in palm leaves and seashells.

    My wife and I carried on a tradition we started in Vancouver. We visited a tree farm near Melbourne and strolled around, picked out our tree and had them cut it down for us. But that really was it, it’s almost impossible to get into the spirit here. Next year we will spend it in Germany, visiting all the Christkindlmarkts and spend time with my wife’s family. That should do the trick!

    Have a safe and happy new years all…

  6. I can totally relate to your first Christmas in Japan. I spent my first Christmas away from home, also in Japan. I had to work, and I called into a Western food store on the way home to buy myself something some (expensive) food from home. I saw one other foreigner and wished him a ‘Merry Christmas’. He just shrugged and walked past me without saying a word.

    I have since spent Christmas in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Colombia – they were all fun in their own way, but they were not Christmas. This year I will be home with my family :-)

  7. I’ve been so lucky with my Christmas’ away from home. The last one was in Canada when I was volunteering on a farm – had my own replacement mother to cook me dinner and it was snowing heavily all day. This year I’m in Bolivia and the weather has made me forget it’s even Xmas at all, but the hostel I’m staying in is run by Irish people and we’re having turkey dinner! Having the food is one of the more important things to me!! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Thank you for the great tips. We can all learn from your experience Amanda. I think holidays in general should be celebrated wherever you are. because holidays are in our heart not in a specific location. As a Muslim, i have spent 15 years in the United States, Nonetheless, i celebrated holidays by adjusting and making the best of what i have.

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