I’m Not From Here: An Expat Guide To Surviving Your First Holiday Season Away From Home

Welcome to I’m Not From Here — a monthly column by five people who have lived the ex-pat experience and want to share their advice and anecdotes with anyone thinking of doing the same. We know all too well that packing up and starting over elsewhere is one of the most exhilarating, yet stressful, things you can do. So each month we will aim to make your move that little bit easier while reminiscing about our own crazy adventures abroad. Enjoy and bon voyage!

I remember my first Christmas away from home like it was yesterday. It was December 24, 2014, my boyfriend and I were bunkered down in a log cabin, sitting pretty by a frozen lake in Canada. The fire roared, the air was crisp and we were wearing our ugly Christmas sweaters. Just as we were turning in for the night at 11:59 pm, we peered out the frosted window to see flurries falling from the sky.

As Australians, we both had never seen snow, so, naturally, we rushed outside, unprepared for the conditions, and watched a white Christmas come to life. We danced and pranced around, catching snowflakes, while other guests watched us — with judgement, I can only assume. Nevertheless, at that moment, all the worries of spending my first Christmas away from home melted as quickly as the snowflake that fell on my nose. 

That was my first experience of celebrating a holiday in a country that wasn’t my native home. It was a Hallmark moment, but not every Christmas spent while living overseas is the same. My next Christmas as an ex-pat wasn’t as magical. There were frustrations and a lot of moving around. We didn’t even have a tree.

That Christmas was capricious at best. Although as an ex-pat, you learn to embrace the change, the cultural experiences, and even start new traditions. One of my favourite experiences as an ex-pat during the holidays was organising an “orphans Christmas,” where we gathered other ex-pats facing the prospect of a Christmas abroad and spent the holidays together, mixing cultures and traditions so everyone could bring a piece of home to the table. 

In the end, this was my experience, and as you will see below, everyone has their own stories of surviving the holidays away from home for the first time. So, if you’re facing a holiday abroad for the first time, here are some tips from seasoned professionals.

Accept the Kindness of Friends

“For the first five or six Christmases that I spent living in New York, I was incredibly touched to be invited by various close friends to enjoy Christmas with them and their families,” says Lyndsey Rodrigues, who spent 12 years living in NYC.

“One year, it was an Irish/Italian celebration in the heart of New Jersey with one of my best mates, where we went with the more Jewish tradition of eating mounds of delicious Chinese food. What made it even more special was that my friend’s brother had recently had a baby, so it was pretty cool getting to see the magic of Christmas through his eyes.

“For two years in a row, another of my friends was kind enough to invite me to spend the day and night with his family, who were Puerto Rican and Russian. It was incredible to experience the hospitality and traditions of these two cultures under one roof and his Mum was the sweetest, going out of her way to buy me little gifts for my stocking. The second year was even more special as my own mother was visiting from Sydney so she was invited along too and still, to this day, says it was one of her favourite holidays ever.

“While, eventually, I started hosting my own orphans Christmas get-togethers with my fellow ex-pat friends, those early experiences of being invited into my friend’s family homes were crucial to surviving the holiday season away from my own.”

Embrace the Cultural Experience

“I grew up in Washington, DC so, spending Christmas here in Australia, where it’s beach weather, instead of snow weather, is still — even after 12 years of being here — a novelty,” says Sangeeta Kocharekar. “But I love seeing the Santa hats on the beach, and all the photos on Instagram of seafood Christmas lunches.

“Also, we don’t have Boxing Day in the US, so that was new, too, but, obviously I’ve loved having the day off work and heading to a venue Boxing Day party or even just to the beach. While I do, of course, miss waking up to snow on Christmas morning and feeling all cosy at home, I love Australia’s (new for me) Christmas traditions, equally, and feel lucky to be well-versed in both countries’.”

Embrace the Weirdness, Start Your Own Traditions

“My first Christmas in Oz was… odd, to say the least,” says News and Culture Editor Jack Revell.

“My family don’t really go in for traditions in the overt sense, although I now appreciate that the set routines we naturally fall into are traditions of a kind. That’s what felt so off about celebrating Christmas in Australia on the other side of the world from all of my friends and family. It’s the stuff you take for granted that you really miss.

“First of all, the seasons are backwards. 40 degree days are great but they’re just not Christmas vibes and you definitely can’t sit around a fire all day. I was in Perth with my girlfriend-at-the-time’s Grandad’s brother and his family who she’d only met once before. This tenuous link was the only one either of us had to family so we tried to make the most of it but the lack of a tree, cold weather, or Christmas roast was something neither of us really got used to. Add somewhat strained family dynamics and the sense that you’re kind of getting in the way of another families moment and it all got a bit weird.

“I decided to lean into it and do something very particular to our family which involved scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on a slice of toasted panettone. It’s not an ancient family recipe, just something my dad made once for Christmas breakfast and served with a mimosa. The strange looks I got from both proposing we make it and then burning the panettone were eventually assuaged by the taste of the new delicacy and confirmation from the family that they would be making it again the following year.

“When I spoke to my dad, delighted that I’d imparted some Revell tradition to Perth, he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about and informed me that while we normally have scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and panettone for Christmas breakfast, they’re never served together at home.

“I guess I got the dish mixed up but I’ve been making it for Christmas breakfast ever since and would encourage everyone to give it a try.

Do Something That Reminds You of Home

“No matter where I spend Christmas, there’s one movie that always gets a run: The Santa Clause,” says Ange Law. “I’ve watched this nostalgic movie just about every year of my life, so it’s extremely comforting and always reminds me of my sisters. These days, I save it for Christmas Day because even if I’m not feeling particularly festive, it always reminds me of childhood Christmases — and we all know Christmas was the best as a kid.”

Travel Somewhere New

“I’m extremely close with my family in Australia, so the idea of spending my first Christmas away from home in chilly (and by December, damp) London was both daunting and exciting,” says Ange Law.

“That first year, I felt the distance immensely and while I was lucky enough to crash one of my closest friend’s family Christmas and be surrounded by love, I found myself missing my family even more as I watched his family do their traditions with the joy of being surrounded by one another.

“By the time my second Christmas in the UK rolled around, my partner and I had decided to create our own traditions, so we headed to New York City a few days before the big day. It ended up being our favourite trip from our time living overseas.

“On Christmas Day, we were thrilled to buck all tradition and instead, we ordered coffee and bagels to our Airbnb, pulled the doonas off our bed, and got cosy on the couch watching our favourite Christmas movies (starting with The Santa Clause, of course). In the afternoon, we went for a stroll around Central Park and then stopped off at The Halal Guys food truck to split a snack pack (not exactly the Christmas lunch I’d usually have at home), and went for a super-late dinner in the evening.

“It was the perfect New York day, and one of my favourite Christmases of my life. Deciding to make our own traditions instead of replicating everything I loved about Christmas in Australia was the best idea — highly recommend.”

Now that you’re (hopefully) more prepared to spend Christmas abroad, next time we’ll look at acknowledging the Indigenous history of your new country See you next month! 

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