I’m gearing up for my 12th Thanksgiving abroad. I can’t believe it! In this post, I thought I’d share some of my tips for how to survive the holidays away from home, based on my experiences over the years.
I’m going to talk about Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I think some of these tips can be applied to all holidays, in case you celebrate different ones than I do.
If you’re like me, the holidays have always been about food and family, and it’s hard to be away from home during the festive season. I hope these tips will help you this year!
Table of Contents
How to survive the holidays away from home
Embrace the differences
I spent one hot Christmas in Australia, and the fact that it didn’t feel like Christmas to me really helped.
As a small Arctic creature from Maine, I found the heat disorienting. Seeing Santa depicted surfing on a slice of watermelon at the supermarket made me laugh and reminded me that Christmas has many forms. I just had to realize that the holiday was going to look a bit different that year.
Unless you’re in Canada, there won’t be Thanksgiving anywhere, so it’ll be easy to just go about your business.
I’ve always celebrated Thanksgiving in some form, but the day itself doesn’t mean that much to me. I go to work, talk to my family, have a quick sob (mostly because I’m missing out on the food – kidding! Well, sort of), and then get on with my day.
I usually celebrate on a weekend with my buddies wherever I am. I still miss my family and being knee deep in mashed potatoes and gravy, but the fact that Thanksgiving is just a Thursday here in Italy really helps.
Wheedle your way into someone else’s family
This was key to me surviving Christmas when I was in Sydney. Like I said above, the climate helped in making me recognize that things would be different that year, but the real clincher was that I was invited to a friend’s family home for Christmas Eve, and another one for Christmas Day.
I will never forget those two days, or those two parties. The Christmas Eve one consisted of piles and piles of delicious Lebanese food, lots of wine, dancing, and opening presents at midnight.
The Christmas Day party consisted of another delicious meal, singing carols, little kids running around, and lots of laughter.
What is most memorable to me is the warmth with which I was welcomed into those two families, who took me in and made me feel at home. They filled my belly and my heart, and I will never forget their love and generosity. I always think of that Christmas during the holiday season, and I’m so grateful and humbled to have been included in two such beautiful Christmas celebrations with two such beautiful families.
Wheedling your way into someone else’s family: a how-to guide
So, how can you go about doing this? If you’re working abroad, use the workplace to your advantage.
- During the day, mention loudly and several times to your colleagues that you’ll be alone for Christmas.
2. Wear a Christmas sweater and a Rudolph nose, while mentioning that Christmas is your favorite holiday, and that you make delicious holiday desserts, if only you had people to share them with…
3. Play “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” on repeat while in a bathroom stall while crying.
Seriously though, someone will invite you to have Christmas with them if you have any kind of regular interaction with people. Ask about people’s plans. Practice batting your eyes, like a cute, pathetic cartoon mouse. They’ll get the idea.
Make your own celebration
When people ask me how to survive the holidays away from home, particularly Thanksgiving, I tell them that I think celebrating is the way to go. Invite your friends. Make it a pot luck, or go nuts and cook everything yourself.
This requires some forethought, because it can be difficult to find some important ingredients overseas, especially if you want to make classic dishes. When I visit the States, sometimes I buy stuff I know I’ll need, like pumpkin purée. In the past, I’ve also brought stuffing and the key ingredients for green bean casserole.
Recently, I’ve started cooking everything from scratch. You can find substitute recipes for lots of things! For the last two years, I’ve made cream of mushroom soup and French-friend onions for the green bean casserole, and it turns out 1000 times better than the version made with the store bought stuff. I also make stuffing by toasting bread, roughly chopping it up by hand, mixing in vegetables and herbs, and tossing it in some melted butter and salty homemade stock.
Keep in mind that you might have to improvise. My first Thanksgiving in Rome, I had to roll out pie crust with a wine bottle and mash potatoes with a fork. I was cooking for 20, so I mashed about a thousand potatoes. I had to empty the wine bottle into my mouth just to ease the pain of my sore hand.
In some cases, your Thanksgiving feast won’t look like a traditional one, and that’s ok. One year in Australia, I made Vietnamese spring rolls. In Senegal, I went out to dinner and had chicken and fries. Those Thanksgivings didn’t look like the ones I grew up with, but they were perfectly lovely. Just celebrating with friends makes all the difference.
Find an expat dinner
So, maybe you’re new to a place, or maybe you don’t have the capacity to cook. If you can’t borrow someone’s kitchen (which I’ve also done) try to find a Thanksgiving dinner to go to.
In Sydney, I went to one at a museum with an American friend. In Switzerland, I went to one at a youth hostel and my two American travel buddies and I shared a table with two men from Mexico, and two gun-toting, God-fearing Texans, and we all had a great dinner and a great conversation.
These events happen all over the place, you just have to find them. Check out event guides to whatever city you’re in, or join a Facebook group for American expats in your area.
If you haven’t met people yet, or you weren’t able to sneak your way into a family party, try volunteering around Christmastime. It’s a great way to get involved in your local community. You’ll have company and might make some connections, you’ll be helping other people to have a good Christmas, and you’ll be making a positive impact. Find out about soup kitchens, food banks, and toy drives, and lend a hand.
Count your blessings
Whatever you do, it’s important to remember to stay grateful. The older I get, the more I realize how instrumental being grateful is in happiness. I try to reflect on things that I’m grateful for daily. They don’t have to be big. Sometimes, I’m grateful for a particularly delicious coffee, or that I get to pet a dog.
Focusing on the positive helped me to survive Christmas in Australia. On the morning of Christmas Eve, I was home alone because all of my housemates had gone to spend the holiday with their families. I Skyped my family and cried. A lot. Then, I decided to think of three good things about that day. I put on a funny movie and started baking (pumpkin pie with ginger snap crust) to bring to my friends’ places. I realized that I had two fun Christmas parties to look forward to. I was going to eat lots of good food. It was beautiful and sunny outside. I even realized that missing my family was a blessing, because some people hate their families and that must really suck. My spirits were lifted, and I ended up having one of the best Christmases ever.
If you’re alone, in a new place, suffering from culture shock, missing your family, and just feeling like crap all around, focus on what’s good. It might be hard to do, but I promise it will help.
This year, if I miss my family and start wishing I was home, I’m going to focus on all the great holidays I’ve had abroad. I’ll think of rolling out that pie crust with a wine bottle in my tiny kitchen in Rome. I’ll think of finding a turkey one year and needing my big, buff roommate to carry it to the house for me. I’ll think of how the turkey wasn’t ready until 9pm, but nobody cared, because that’s just dinnertime here. I’ll think of the year that I didn’t have time to make anything and my French roommates surprised me with roast chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy when I got home from work. I’ll think of my two Thanksgivings in Australia – the spring roll one, and the one when my friend let me borrow her kitchen to make a traditional feast. I’ll think of my Senegalese Thanksgiving, when I ate chicken and fries on a hot, hazy night, under the light of the stars. I’ll think of the three Thanksgivings I had in Padua, surrounded by more wonderful friends and food.
I am so grateful for all of the memories. They wouldn’t be possible without my excellent friends, and I count them each as a blessing. They’ve all taught me that when you’re surrounded by people you love and you have gratitude (and food!) to share, where you are in the world doesn’t matter, not one little bit.
Special tips for COVID-19
This year, a lot of the tips in this post won’t apply. The advice pretty much everywhere is to avoid getting together with people in closed spaces, so you might not be able to make a big meal and celebrate with friends. So, what you can you do instead?
How I’ll be celebrating this year
I’m not going home for Christmas for only the second time life because of the pandemic. I’m really struggling with it, because frankly, it sucks. I’m going to miss my family. A lot.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the negative, but I also won’t try to force cheer. Some days, I’ll probably just be sad. And that’s ok.
That being said, for me, ignoring the holidays or not doing anything to celebrate them would make things worse. So I plan on trying to make the best of this crazy year by doing the following:
I will be decking the halls in my little apartment. I have already bought decorations and wrapping paper, and some of our extremely kind friends have said they’ll drive us in their car to get a Christmas tree!
I love giving gifts, and COVID-19 won’t stop me. I’ve got presents hidden all over the house and a box ready to go to Maine.
I also managed to find some Christmas cookie cutters in Rome this year, so I’m going to make cookies and drop them off to friends that live close by. No contact necessary! I’ll be the ding-dong-ditch cookie queen of my neighborhood!
Zooming my face off
a marketing stunt an act of generosity, Zoom has lifted the 40-minute call limit on Thanksgiving Day to allow families and friends to chat for as long as they want. Now you can cry to your family for hours on end! Thanks, Zoom!
In all seriousness, this is a really nice thing for them to do. I’m already looking forward to calling my family and friends on Thanksgiving Day. It’ll be difficult because we’ll all be missing each other, but this year, not getting together is the best thing we can do for our friends, family and communities.
Making an extra special meal
If there was ever a year to treat yourself, this is it. I’ll be making all the nice food and drinking all the nice wine, because 2020.
Do you have any tips on how to survive the holidays away from home? Share them in the comments!