Celebrating Holiday Traditions While Living Abroad

xmas tree

In this article series, we’ve reached out to expats and US citizens living abroad about how they get into a festive holiday mood while living abroad.

Traditional celebrations are some of the core aspects of any culture. Whether it is a wedding, a harvest festival, a religious holiday, or a national observance, our celebrations are woven tightly into our overall cultural identity. It’s who we are.

When we move overseas, part of the excitement of living in a new culture is exploring and joining in the celebration of the local holidays and traditions of our newly adopted country. Some of these experiences will provide memories that will last a lifetime.

Getting deep into the local culture is a fantastic way to adapt to your new home, we’ve asked a few expats how they celebrate the holidays and family traditions:

christmas trees

I'm a U.S. citizen from Alaska living in Munich Germany. I left the U.S. three years ago and lucky for me I moved to one of the most “Christmassy” places on the planet, Munich, Germany. So, it is easy to get into the holiday cheer when there are 12+ Christmas markets within walking distance from my house, St. Nikolas day is a big celebration and the entire month of December is set aside for Advent festivities.  However, that doesn’t mean it is easy to be away from my family. There’s just two of us, me and my husband, so it’s hard to not being able to go over to my parent's house on Christmas Eve and bake cookies, watch Christmas movies and wake up to fresh presents under the tree.

We’ve started some of our own traditions, exchanging a few meaningful gifts, hanging stockings and getting a tree, but it’s just not the same as having my entire extended family in one cozy house. Aside from being away from family, I moved with my husband who a third culture kid that grew up in Australia but was raised by Indian parents. They never celebrated the holidays so, while he is on board with my Christmas spirit and starting our own traditions, he doesn’t have a long history of traditions, and sometimes the meaning falls flat. We’ve resorted to skyping with my family on Christmas day, inviting a few other expat friends over, and now we are considering traveling for Christmas instead of having the holiday in an empty house.

Susanna K, https://wanderingchocobo.com

xmas confectionery

What has been difficult? When we lived in Lima, Peru for six year, it was finding the foods we love to prepare and being far away from family and friends.

What do you miss most? Being far away from family and friends.

How do you get into the holiday cheer? By planning very early so I could purchase what I needed and wanted from amazon ahead of time, and inviting people to come visit over the holiday season.

Heidi M, Author of the book, Life Transitions: Personal Stories of Hope Through Life's Most Difficult Challenges and Changes

xmas presents

I live in Cuenca, Ecuador. 

The locals have an 8-hour parade every year, on Dec 24, Christmas Eve. We expats watch from the balcony of someone who has an apartment on the same street (along with a potluck spread). The Cuencanos (as the locals are called) dress their small children up like Mary and Joseph and make homemade floats. They toss candy at the audience. In the parade are also ethnic traditional dancers, horses, ponies (with small children riding them), and music bands. Tens of thousands of Ecuadorians come from neighboring towns, so it's very crowded.

On New Year's Eve, the locals and expats burn dummies/effigies right at midnight. The dummies are dressed up to represent the biggest event they had in that year. Children burn dummies of cartoon characters, like Sponge Bob. The dummies burn on the sidewalk or even in the middle of the street! 

When it comes to USA-only holidays, such as Thanksgiving or July 4rth, local restaurants (often owned by "gringos" or by Ecuadorians who lived in the USA) will offer special meals, often with live music. 

I have lived in Ecuador 8.5 years now and the only thing I miss is family that still lives in the USA. But I skype them on some holidays. Also, it seems a bit odd that Christmas is so HOT... You must keep in mind that I live south of the Equator, so seasons are reversed. It is summer here in December and January! 

Susan S, Author of Expats in Ecuador: The Magic & the Madness

It is important to note that family values and relationships are often stressed following relocation so trying to continue family celebrations can help maintain or restore the balance that seems to be upended after leaving your home country. This is especially important when children are involved.

The keys are to be open to the ideas and feelings of each family member and be willing to create new ways of doing things; new customs can generate traditions that will define the uniqueness of your family. Most importantly, consider what you remember most fondly from your childhood–the love and activities you enjoyed–and help your children grow up to remember the same things.

So next time you see one of your traditional holidays approaching on the calendar, start planning. Invite your friends, involve the kids, and create your own lasting memories.