Have you ever spent Christmas in another country on your own?
Perhaps you were working abroad? Or maybe you were in the middle of long-term travels. Or – perish the thought – involuntarily stuck somewhere in the world due to lockdowns or unexpected border closures. If that was, or is, you, then I feel for you.
This post was originally written in December 2019 and has been updated.
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 couple of years 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
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.
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!
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. Especially if you’re unfortunate enough to be in managed isolation or home isolation due to Covid19. I want to hear your story.
See also my post on homesickness which is relevant to this topic.
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