An expat Christmas

The Expatability Chat Podcast

Celebrating Christmas as an expat

Well, it’s December. What a year this has been. And there is no denying that it’s been probably the most difficult year most of us have ever experienced! 

Christmas overseas in general is a bit weird if you’ve spent most of your previous Christmases in your home country. And this is often a difficult period for expats, due to expectations from our families in our home country and the pressure we put on ourselves to try to make everyone happy. We often place a lot of significance on this festival as it may be the main, or only, option for us to all to get together in one place again.

The Holiday season is a key component of expat life, because it's the main time we get to go home and see our families.

This year, we may not be getting the Christmas we hoped for, but there are still many opportunities to make this a memorable season for all the right reasons. 

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Hi, welcome back to Expatability Chat! Well, it's December... My God, what a year this has been. There is no denying that it's probably been the most difficult year most of us have ever experienced.

I'm not a great fan of looking back, so I'm not going to do one of those retrospectives with what I've learned from 2020, and how this crapfest has made me a better person, because, quite frankly, I haven't and it hasn't. It has been a struggle simply getting through this year, if I'm honest.

And now we approach that family and tradition oriented festival of Christmas, which is difficult at the best of times for many expats. And this year... Well, Covid has so dramatically and severely impacted so many people in so many ways that it seems churlish to complain that we can't celebrate Christmas in the way we like, with trips back to our home countries or family coming to visit us in our new countries. There are no big family gatherings; nothing much of note at all.

But wait, you are allowed to be sad about your Christmas plans going wrong. It is a legitimate disappointment for some families. They may not have had the chance to see each other for a very long time. And with the continuing uncertainty, it's hard to look forward at all.

So many families are separated this Christmas, whether they're expat or not. I've made the decision not to visit my mum this Christmas because there are just too many variables that we cannot control. And the confusion about who can travel where and when and whether quarantine and testing and isolation will be required or... Well, that's enough. No more, no more Covid-talk.

Christmas overseas in general is a bit weird if you have spent most of your previous Christmases in your home country, doing the same kind of thing in the same kind of climate, with the same kind of traditions and food as you always have. That first Christmas in a new country is a bit of a wonder, really.

Having spent Christmas as an expat living in Japan, Germany and South Africa, plus a holiday a long time ago in Sri Lanka, I know Christmas can differ wildly from country to country. Sri Lanka was hot and surreal, with curry for breakfast, piped Christmas carols and a nativity scene. Japan doesn't do Christmas. It's not a Christian country, so although they've taken on board the festival, it holds a different meaning there. More akin to Valentine's Day, I guess. KFC is their traditional Christmas meal, as apparently Colonel Sanders looks a little bit like Santa, which always amused me! Germany practically invented the Christmas we are used to in the UK, with sparkly Christmas markets, huge fir trees bedecked with glorious baubles, mulled wine and hot chestnuts on every corner. And of course, snow too. The whole package, really, it was all very obliging, picturesque and magical. South Africa was a more refined and religious time; in the middle of their summer, although the trees went up in the shopping malls on the 1st of September.

Depending on where you are in the world, the Christmas songs may have been cranked up since September, and the shops may be festooned with decorations. There may be Christmas markets everywhere and the festive spirit and Gluhwein may be flowing. Or there may be nothing Christmassy at all, because you're in a country that doesn't celebrate the festival. It depends where you are and what you're used to. Everything may be so far removed from your home country's traditions that you just don't know where to find what you need to fulfil your Christmas dreams.

Each family and each country have different Christmas traditions, and that's what makes it so special. Christmas is a composite of family traditions taken from yours and your partner's families. Remember back when you spent your first Christmas together, did you find their traditions completely matched yours? No, I very much doubt it. Over the years, you drop some of yours, include some of theirs and vice versa, until you have your own personal family tradition. Then as you have children, you create your own joint set of traditions. And so it is with spending Christmas overseas. The holiday season evolves to suit your life, your wishes, your needs and your situation. It's a good idea to try and carry some of your existing family traditions with you to your new country, particularly if you have young children as it helps them settle into their new expat life. And also it's fun!

So whatever family traditions you're used to, it's helpful to try and recreate at least some of those to make Christmas abroad feel like Christmas at home. It's also a great opportunity to create new traditions and new customs, which in future years you can take with you to the next place. And those, in turn, will become your family's new traditions. Think of these new traditions as enhancements. I collect Christmas tree baubles from around the world, so each year these gorgeous enhancements remind me of special Christmases past. I have a hula dancing Santa from Hawaii. I have Chinese symbols from China and hand beaded baubles from Africa and Temari balls from Japan.

Embrace where you are right now. Living overseas means that you can also celebrate something very special about where you are. It may not be a tradition that you can take with you, but welcome what's there and really enjoy what is special about spending Christmas in that particular country.

For example, if you're in Australia, take the opportunity to swim on Christmas Day. That's not something you could necessarily do or want to do in the UK, but definitely very enjoyable. As Christmas was a normal workday in Japan, Mum and I would take the afternoon off after lunch to head out to Ginza, a lovely shopping street in Tokyo; just me and her. It was a new tradition that we could only enjoy there and then, but it was fantastic, and she'll always remember it too.

As for the time between Christmas and New Year... In South Africa this was most special. We would go on safari and one year I managed to make my mum's dream come true by booking a hot air balloon flight while we were on safari. Now, this isn't something that I would personally choose, but it was Mum's dream, so I now have a fantastic memory of soaring high above the plains of South Africa with my mum. It wasn't at Christmas - it was between Christmas and New Year. It's all about the memories. It doesn't have to be all about one day.

If your life is made up of living in different countries then it makes sense to celebrate this and to take a little piece of each country with you each time you celebrate Christmas. Perhaps trade your usual pine tree for a Christmas palm tree?

Christmas is all about food as well. Please don't assume you can find a turkey where you're living now! Have a dinner plan B, not all countries celebrate Christmas. Not all countries have turkeys or whatever your preferred meal is. Think about the intention of why certain things are on your list. Are you just going for turkey because that's the tradition? The first Christmas after my dad died, mum was fretting about what size turkey to get and when to start cooking it. We had a conversation and then we learned actually we didn't even like turkey and we'd only ever had it every single Christmas because my dad wanted that tradition. It took a lot of pressure off us and we haven't had turkey since and Christmas is a much more relaxed affair.

You may have had a great plan for your traditional Christmas dinner, but can't find the ingredients easily. So maybe it's not going to work out. Don't get stressed about it. Adapt. The reality of trying to find that certain something is more stressful than the idea. So put the idea to one side and find something that is available. And if you're living abroad and you're extra stressed this year, just because of the sheer fact that you are away from your loved ones and your normal environment, you don't need to add to your stress by fussing about a single item on the menu. Can you imagine the fun I had when I first arrived in Japan just before Christmas? Gifts were easy to find thanks to the fabulous toy shop called Kiddyland, but there were very few Christmas decorations to be found, although this changed as the years went by. Christmas wrapping paper was non-existent, so my daughter's gifts were wrapped up in Hello Kitty paper instead. It matters not a jot! It really doesn't. Christmas is all about making memories. It doesn't have to be about what happened last year and 10 years ago and twenty years ago. Finding food was quite fun that first Japanese Christmas. Not only was the local supermarket full of completely unfamiliar and unfathomable items, I couldn't even begin to work out what the Japanese labels said. It was great fun experimenting, though, but not always successful. Thankfully, my daughter was an adventurous eater.

When it comes to food - before your move, get the vocabulary together for the things that are really important to you and your family. So when you get there, you can hopefully find them easily. Now, as I mentioned just now, we don't have Turkey for Christmas, but I did want a nice piece of meat of some description for our first Japanese Christmas. However, meat isn't really sold in great quantities in the local supermarkets in Japan, and I didn't want fish. I think we ended up with tiny steaks instead but I really can't remember.

That isn't what I remember from that first Christmas. What I do remember is this. I wanted to try something different and I spotted a small pudding shaped thing in the local supermarket food aisles. So I bought it, intending it to be an end of Christmas dinner treat. It looked like two fat white buns, one placed on top of the other with a small orange on top and some extra decorations. I thought it would be a kind of mochi - a pounded rice cake. And in fact, I found out later that it is called KagamimochI and it's a New Year symbol for prosperity. Because New Year is the key focus of Japanese celebrations, not Christmas. So after our Christmas dinner, just us and my mum who travelled over to stay, I ceremoniously opened the box and began to carve it so we could all try a piece of this strange white bun thing. I poked. I sawed. I jabbed. It would not slice at all. That's weird. I'd had mochi before and while it's not soft, it definitely wasn't as solid as that. Because that turned out to be a plastic decoration! That's what we remember about that first Christmas in Japan. We don't remember that we didn't have decorations. We don't remember the Hello Kitty wrapping paper. What we do remember is that was the Christmas that mum tried to make everybody eat plastic!

As I say, Christmas is about the memories, the way that you make it. It's not necessarily about the traditions.

So don't assume you'll be able to pop out and get what you want. Be flexible in your planning, especially if you haven't yet had a chance to spend much time in your new country before this big event. Depending on where you are, you may find an international supermarket where celebration and other familiar food is sold. But do expect to pay a premium for certain items. International supermarkets generally only exist in places where there is a large expat population and therefore the demand, and the price is high. It goes even higher at Christmas. The same as it does at home.

So now the food is out of the way, I want to concentrate more on the memories that I just said. You need to make Christmas, and this Christmas in particular, memorable for the right reasons. Don't have it in your memory as the 2020 Christmas of Doom. Little children care very little about tradition. As long as they've got their stockings and a few presents, that's all that really matters when they're very young. Teenagers, as long as they get presents they really don't mind. And plenty of food! So think about what is most important at Christmas for you.

Is it the religious aspect? Is it about making other people happy, making yourself happy, relaxing, giving the children a really exciting time? I think I can guess your answer here. You want to say that Christmas is all about family and all being together in the same place. And as expats, it's even more important because it's often the main time of year that we do all get together. And you might feel that you're kind of trying to make up for lost time. Those times that you haven't been able to be with your family; for important birthdays or for weddings or sadly for funerals.

But this is one year. This is one year that is going to be very different. And you need to manage your expectations and your hopes. Try and focus on what you do have rather than what you don't have right now. Take a few minutes out of your day and as calmly as possible, consider what Christmas is about for you and not what other people, magazines, papers and TV say makes a perfect Christmas. It could be that you've been organising a Christmas based on what you thought made you happy according to previous years. It could be that you're trying to uphold a tradition that doesn't fit your family's lifestyle these days just because it's expected of you.

So many people put way too much pressure on themselves for Christmas. So it could be that you've been organising a Christmas that really doesn't fit in with your life, particularly based on your current reality of living overseas in a global pandemic. This could be your chance to rip up the rule book and do something completely different.

How can you make this Christmas special in the situation that we're in right now? Take Covid out of the picture. I really wish we could, but we can't so we can only work with what we've got.

Obviously, Christmas is a time when we think about being with our loved ones near and far. If you can't be with your family, then set times to connect with them. Everyone is busy on Christmas Day. Maybe not so much this year, but people will be somewhere that you can contact them. Don't forget about time zones. So do your time zone maths and plan ahead. You don't want to phone somebody just as they're heading off to church or sitting down to the big meal. Modern technology means that we can connect with someone on the other side of the world easier than ever before. You could even Skype Grandma as the kids are opening up their presents so she can feel part of it and not miss out. And this year, I'm pretty sure granny and granddad are fully up to speed on technology!

Having said that, don't make the people that you're missing more important than the people that you're with. I think most of us agree that Christmas is generally about the children. And what you can focus on is making their memories of this Christmas memorable for the right reasons, just by having a lovely, warm family Christmas, even if your family is somewhat smaller than you were hoping for.

The other thing I've noticed is how people seem to believe that Christmas is all about one day, the 25th of December. And then there's the awful comedown after that and that dreadful gap between Christmas and the New Year, especially when you have little, overexcited kids around. So why not try to enjoy the run up to Christmas as well. And plan something for the gap between Christmas and New Year?

How can you make the run up fun? It's always fun to explore somewhere you don't know and maybe buy presents because of the novelty of going somewhere different and seeing different shops sparks new ideas. And I also have fun exploring. There's no reason why your kids can't go too. And this is especially true when you live overseas because there are so many new places to explore and wonderfully different gifts to find. I recognise that this option may stress out some people, but if you're seeking something fresh and new and it's great fun to do, essentially you just need to work out how you can have fun in the run up to Christmas.

The other interesting thing I've found is that every country has different and distinctive ways of decorating for Christmas. So if you're the creative sort, pick out something to make and do with your kids in the run up.

Basically, Christmas is all about spirit and attitude, and Christmas abroad is more so. And then add on to that the Christmas this year where it's going to be a very, very much smaller Christmas for so many people. Not being able to travel to be with big family groups as you're used to, it's going to be much more focused on a warm and comfortable Christmas in your immediate family.

If you focus on what's missing, then it's going to make for a very miserable day. Focus on making it a really fantastic day and embracing what's there, then you can have a fabulous day. Attitude is everything. Please don't get stressed out about Christmas. Make it great for your children. Make it great for your partner. Make it great for the family that you can't be with. And above all, make it great for you. I don't want you stressing about stuff that you cannot control or fix.

I want you to have a fantastic Christmas. I want you to make the best of it. Dreadful phrase, but it is the only thing that we can really do this year. And remember, this is just one Christmas out of many before, and many in the future. If you're away from the big family, get together, it's a real opportunity for you to have a very special Christmas. Maybe a romantic one of it's just the two of you, or perhaps a very special family Christmas, just you and the children.

And remember too, that Christmas naturally changes anyway. As your children grow up, they move away, they get their own partners and have their own children. This year it's simply changed suddenly and scarily and unexpectedly and maybe somewhat harsher than could be expected.

Just support each other and create some new Christmas memories. Focus on the simple things and feel grateful that you have each other. Finally, when the big day comes, let it go and have a fantastic Christmas full of love laughter and good health.

I'm going to take a bit of a break now through December. I'm not going to publish another Expatability Chat podcast until the New Year, and I look forward to catching up with you in 2021.

Until then, I'd like to wish you all a very merry Christmas, wherever you are in the world. Focus on making wonderful memories together and I'll catch you again in the New Year. All the best now.

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