Christmas away from home – the highs and lows

Oxford Street London Christmas lightsHave you ever spent Christmas in another country on your own, perhaps when working abroad or in the midst of long-term travels?

It’s easy to feel cut-off and lonely, especially if you’re used to celebrating with your family. But the kindness of strangers and new-found friends can make it special.

If you’re travelling, there’s a certain camaraderie that naturally builds among fellow exiles in the atmosphere of goodwill and merrymaking. I remember being on a flight one Christmas Eve when the crew spontaneously gave everyone free drinks and a party atmosphere soon developed. It was great fun. If you’re in a hotel, you’ll often find that they go to great lengths to create a good vibe at Christmas. We certainly found that in Singapore a year ago. But you’ll probably still feel the pang of homesickness when you call your loved ones and hear the sound of familiar routines going on in the background.

Christmas in exile

Christmas at the Fullerton Singapore
The Fullerton, Singapore

What about if you’re working overseas, living in rented accommodation with no family anywhere near you? That can be a little more challenging. I can still remember my first Christmas in New Zealand, 12,000 miles away from my family.

I’d been away for 2 months and was living in a small flat within a large Victorian house in central Wellington. The owners, who are among my closest friends today, were heading off with members of their extended family to spend their festive break in Australia, where they owned a house on the Queensland coast.

I remember waving them off, an excited group of kids, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins squeezing into a Supershuttle van that was to take them to the airport.

Left on my own in the vast house with nobody but the cat, I suddenly felt very lonely indeed. Luckily, as it turned out, the owners had invited other friends to house-sit in the main house. So it wasn’t so bad after all.

The kindness of strangers

There were other compensations. It was summer, I had a lovely home in a great city, time to explore and to build new friendships. I was invited to spend Christmas Day with new friend Janet and her family. The gathering was at her parents’ house in a seaside suburb, and while I was a little apprehensive about how I would feel as the only stranger among loved ones, I need not have worried. They welcomed me as one of their own, and had even bought and wrapped a gift for me, to make sure I didn’t feel excluded. I’ll never forget their kindness.

Squeaky the cat

Meanwhile, back at base, I had Squeaky the cat for company and various other people who popped in and out, so it wasn’t as quiet as I expected. I also had jobs to do – feed Squeaky and water the vast collection of plants in the conservatory and around the house. I soon adapted to my new routines and started to enjoy my quiet time.

Waifs and strays

The months I intended to spend in New Zealand extended into years! Subsequent Christmases were easier as I had built a wider circle of friends. One of them, Bill, started a tradition of holding what he called a ‘waifs and strays’ gathering late in the afternoon on Christmas Day. He invited people like me who were separated from their own families, but also local friends who wanted an excuse to get away from theirs!

Carole and Mollie playing croquet
Me playing croquet on Christmas Day in NZ with my favourite dog-in-law Mollie

That might sound odd but the reality is that Christmas with family isn’t necessarily a happy experience for everyone. It can be a stressful time, because we tend to want it to be perfect. In that pressured environment, old tensions can unexpectedly arise and tempers can fray. The perception and the reality of a family Christmas can be quite different.

Bill’s intention was for everyone to chill out and have a good time, without any expectations, obligations or pressures. We relaxed, watched movies and ate pizza. People shared stories of the best and worst moments of their family Christmas get-togethers that had taken place earlier in the day. And believe me, some of those stories were classic!

So I came to realise that if you can’t be with your family, Christmas with the right friends – even new ones you don’t yet know very well – can be pretty good. And you can adopt their pets too!

The shock of the new

Of course the other benefit of Christmas away from home is that you get to experience how others do things, which might be totally different from your own traditions.

Culturally, New Zealand isn’t that far away from my home country (the UK), but Christmas in summer is very different indeed. In time I became more accustomed to sunshine, barbecues and croquet instead of roast turkey dinners, cold dark nights and roaring fires. We travellers tend to love new experiences rather than repeating the same old ones, so I feel blessed to have been able to enjoy both traditions.

Best wishes from Coconut Lands!

Wherever you’re spending Christmas this year – with family, old friends or new – I wish you a very happy and peaceful one. And thank you for reading my blog! If you’d like to share your own experience of Christmas away from home, I’d love to hear about it.

See also my post on homesickness which is relevant to this topic.

© Coconut Lands. Not to be reproduced without permission.


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5 Comments

  1. I’ve got to admit that we have spent Christmas away from home a few times but I’ve always had my family around me. How lovely of your friend’s family to buy you a gift, that’s so sweet. Like you, I’ve been lucky enough to experience this festive time in both hot and cold countries but I still miss the roast turkey, roaring fires and the coldness of Christmas.

  2. Thank you! Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to you as well.
    This year I spent Christmas in Hong Kong. I went to a party at a friend’s. We ate lots of food and it was all served appetizer-style. Christmas is much more low-key over here. Most people have the day off but there’s not nearly so much hype as in some countries. Actually last year I was in Hong Kong as well and we actually went to a club on Christmas. That was hilarious; I’d never do something like that if I were home with my family.
    Hopefully I’ll be back home next year, but it’s been nice to have this diversion.

    1. Wow, Christmas in a club, that sounds great. I love Hong Kong. Just goes to show, Christmas spent with friends can be great fun. Thank you for sharing!

  3. I’ve never actually spent Christmas in another country, I’ve not really celebrates Christmas much since I reached 18. I spent my most Christmases alone, by choice, because I’d rather do nothing and stuff my face and have fun, rather than commit to family obligations. It’s only been the last few years that I’ve made the effort, because of my partner

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