“Are you going home for the holiday season?” “Do you have any plan for [insert relevant holiday]”?
For many expats and immigrants, seasonal small talk can bring mixed emotions. Indeed, many of us don’t celebrate major holidays—Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Chinese New Year, the two Eid, etc.—at “home.” Abroad, such celebrations can have a bittersweet taste and homesickness can kick in.
Since 2000, I came back to France once for Christmas, in 2013. It was a great trip but not one I’d make every year. Travelling between North America and continental Europe for the holidays is expensive, the weather sucks and after all, it’s just a few days of celebration. I’d much rather take a longer trip in the summer months.
This is a rational decision but it doesn’t mean I never feel bad about not being home for Christmas. The first few years, there were teary Christmas Eves and many moments of cultural loneliness trying to explain “that whole Santa stuff” to Feng.
So, here are my tips on how you can overcome homesickness during the holidays.
Identify your “brand” of homesickness
Some people miss a place, some miss the way a holiday is celebrated back home, some simply miss their loved ones. Yes, it can be a combination of the three but identifying your feelings and understanding your emotions may help you find ways to overcome homesickness.
I almost never miss France as a country so I couldn’t care less about watching French programs or a movie set in France. However, I do miss my family and very occasionally, I miss a specific tradition that doesn’t exist in Canada—galette des rois, for instance, the pie traditionally eaten for the festival of Epiphany at the end of the Christmas season (it’s fun, a small figurine is hidden inside and if you find it, you are crowned king or queen!)
Set clear expectations for the upcoming holiday
If your partner or your social circle has a different cultural background, they may not be aware that XZ holiday is a big deal to you.
Feng never celebrated Christmas as a kid in China, so it doesn’t mean much to him. He doesn’t have any childhood memories associated with this holiday and he doesn’t know what traditions matter the most—is it about presents, special foods, Santa…? On the other hand, even though I’m familiar with Chinese New Year, it’s not special to me but Feng misses the way he celebrated it as a kid. Likewise, even though no one particularly likes them, I got used to seeing mooncakes piling up in the kitchen around the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Bottom line is, explain your cultural holidays and teach your friends and partner how to celebrate them if they want to.
Don’t feel guilty
You’re not coming home for the holidays, period. Don’t let your relatives guilt-trip you and don’t feel bad about your decision. Presumably, you have good reasons to stay abroad. Maybe the trip is too expensive, too long, too difficult. Maybe you’re saving money to buy a house. Maybe you’ve just started a new job and can’t take any time off.
On a side note, the lack of paid holidays (and the social stigma around taking time off) is a real issue in North America that your family abroad may not be aware of. Try to explain to a European friend that you get two weeks off a year, not five or six…!
Don’t let the media brainwash you
Most of these cultural holidays happen every year (unless your culture celebrates something on February 29…?), yet they are heavily marketed because retail wants to make money. Christmas creep is real. In Canada, almost every major cultural holiday is acknowledged by retail not to make the world a more festival place but to sell stuff.
Remind yourself that it’s perfectly fine to be single on Valentine’s Day (newsflash: some of us, married folks, don’t even that sex that day…), it’s okay to skip the turkey on Thanksgiving, it’s okay not to have a Christmas tree, etc. Not celebrating a holiday is not weird. It’s a personal choice.
— Juliette Giannesini (@Xiaozhuli) December 8, 2016
Don’t set yourself for failure
If you do decide to recreate a tradition you grew up with, remind yourself that it won’t be exactly the same. If your main cooking skill is setting the timer right on the microwave, don’t try to cook your mom’s special dish with the recipe she shared from memory over the phone—it probably won’t turn out as you expected.
For instance, I completely gave up on eating crêpes abroad. They never taste as good as in Brittany and disappointing food makes homesickness worse.
Create your own traditions
This goal can take time, but it focuses on creating your own traditions with a local twist. For instance, you can elaborate a holiday meal with your new favourite foods—at home, we eat baked sweet potatoes for almost every major holiday, from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
I also adopted the very British (and Canadian) holiday card tradition and I love both sending and receiving them for major holidays. I traded a bûche de Noël for Chinese pastries, Christmas gifts under the tree for Boxing Day deals (with Mark, we are back to “Santa brought gifts”, though). Oh, and thanks to North America’s “customer is king” policy, you can return anything you don’t like hassle-free!
Entertain yourself with the big and small cultural differences
The other day, I bought Mark a set of Star Wars figurines at the new Disney Store. Since a Christmas gift must look like, well, a gift, I asked for it to be wrapped… and I was met with a puzzled look. “I mean, come on, obviously I’m doing my Christmas shopping, it’s mid-December!” I thought. But no, Disney, a store dedicated to kids, doesn’t offer gift-wrapping services. And you know what—no store does.
In France, complimentary gift-wrapping service is very much expected, especially around Christmas. I can’t believe I never realize it didn’t exist in Canada!
Connect with people
Call your family back home. Pick a good day when you feel happy and when a possible guilt trip won’t affect you too much. Meet your friends for a meal, a coffee or a movie. That lame office party no one really enjoys? Make it fun and connect with coworkers from other departments you rarely talk to. You can also sign up for one of the numerous gift swap events that happen in many communities online, including among expat bloggers.
Avoid the mall when everyone is doing their holiday shopping—go see a movie instead. Bonus if you go for a non-holiday-themed movie because it will be quieter! When everybody is eating way too much food and no-mom-really-we-don’t-need-desert, cook yourself a nice dinner (or get take-out from a Chinese restaurant that never closes!) and catch up on a TV series. Remember that not all cultures celebrate the same holidays, so join the ones for which it’s business as usual if you want a normal day.
No matter what, remember that a holiday can be whatever you want it to be, no matter where you are!