Balance,  How to,  Living Abroad,  Thriving

Spending the Holidays Away from Home

Dear Esther,

With the holidays approaching, it’s normal to have some mixed feelings if you’re going to be abroad and far away from the ones you love. This may be the first time you are away from family for an important holiday and I imagine you’re feeling blue about that. Alternatively, now in 2021, this may be the second holiday season in a row that you’ve been unable to make it back home to be near loved ones and that’s especially difficult.

The reality is that most of us living abroad don’t choose to miss holidays because that’s what we want in our hearts; rather it’s the result of circumstances, distance, finances, or the unfortunate reality of a continuing pandemic. While homesickness can hit at any time, we find that Christmas can be especially hard to miss. It’s probably because the holiday season is so long—encompassing many different days that hold memories and long-standing traditions for us.

We know how it is. We’re suckers for the Christmas music, decorations, and spirit in general. Thus, it’s often bittersweet to get so excited about the upcoming holiday season, then remember that many of the customs and the people you would normally be looking forward to spending them with will not be a part of your experience this year.

But before we get you too sad, let’s talk about how you might deal with it all in a way that still allows you to have a very merry Christmas here in Spain! As with so many challenges you’ll meet during your time abroad, the holidays are definitely something that will test your ability to balance two worlds. Each of us has a different balancing act we must play to meet our personal needs, but a combination of some of the suggestions below is what has helped us. For some specific ideas, Dani has provided examples from her own life.

Holding on to where YOU come from:

Skyping with family at Christmas will help beat the holiday-away-from-home blues.

1.) Find people who are willing to take part in some of your traditions (while hopefully sharing theirs with you too!): At a time of year that is so precious to many of us, it can be especially helpful to keep the spirit of this time alive. Not all Spaniards will put up Christmas trees in their homes, leave cookies out for Santa, or observe Boxing Day, but that doesn’t mean you can’t! There is absolutely no shame in wanting to do Christmas your way rather than “the Spanish way.”

Dani’s Take: In years past, I have been incredibly lucky to have the kind of partner who was willing to go all-out with Christmas celebrations, despite the fact that he was not in Spain with me on December 25. We still decorated a Christmas tree, baked my grandma’s Christmas cookies, watched our favorite holiday movies, cooked a big meal together, and opened presents on ‘Christmas morning’ (well the Christmas morning we designated for ourselves, one week ahead of time). This has allowed the little girl in me to have the Christmas of my childhood while also bringing us closer as we shared how we celebrate at home, laughing at all of the similarities and differences. Nowadays, although we try to visit family back in one of our home countries from Christmas, we still maintain this one-week-before tradition and it continues to bring me so much joy.

2.) Send home some presents, letters, etc for your family to open on Christmas (or whatever holiday celebrate): Transcontinental mail, namely packages, gets really expensive so here it’s not about the quantity that you send, but the thought behind it. It also allows you something fun to do over Skype as you still open your presents together, helping bridge that distance you may otherwise feel so heavily on this day.

Dani’s Take: Christmas baskets, known as cestas de navidad, are quite common here in Spain and, when I can manage it, I like to put together something along these lines for my loved ones. It’s a great way to really come full-circle, allowing your family and/or friends back home to try foods they may not know and feel like they can also partake in some of the traditions of your new home. When a full basket is not feasible, I at least like to include some polvorones and mantecados or similar Spanish Christmas products.

Reveling in the Christmas season HERE:

3.) Enjoy what Spain has to offer all throughout December and the beginning of January: We’ve shared about some of the typical aspects of Spanish Christmas here on the blog, why not give those things a try? In addition, take time to wander through your city and take in the festive hustle and bustle. If you are more of a religious person, take comfort in the many belenes, or nativity scenes, you’ll find around time or find a Christmas mass you can attend. Whatever you choose to do, just getting out of your house can have a positive effect on your mood.

Dani’s Take: Personally, I find that when I’m starting to have negative thoughts about the upcoming holidays, being surrounded by the positive energy I can find all over my city is sure to help! I promise, it always makes me smile if I’m out-and-about when the Christmas lights happen to come on.

A few years back, the friend from the “creepy conversation” welcomed us into his family’s celebration, too!

4.) Surround yourself with family*: If you can’t be with your family on Christmas, the next best thing is someone else’s family right!? Consider it another opportunity to further immerse yourself in the Spanish culture (or simply another family’s culture if you find yourself with fellow guiris). The ability to get wrapped up in their traditions, help them prepare meals, and get all dressed up (as all Spaniards seem to do on Nochebuena, aka Christmas Eve) will certainly help distract you from the homesickness that may creep up. And it helps you strengthen those friendships too—win-win!

Dani’s Take: I’m very lucky to have made the sweetest of friends who have graciously welcomed me into their homes for every Christmas I have spent here in Spain. In the same way that I enjoy introducing my family to Spanish Christmas things, I enjoy bringing something traditional for me to the home of the Spanish families I’ve spent Christmas with. Usually, this means Grandma’s crescent cookies!

Of course, you may find other ways that better help you get through the holiday season with a smile—please comment and share your ideas if you do!!—but we think these four suggestions will help you manage the balancing act and keep you in a holly jolly mood. We know they sure have for us!

Sincerely,
Spain

P.S. At the same time that this article has been upbeat and light, we also want to acknowledge that the holidays are NOT a holly jolly time for all. For those who suffer from childhood trauma, depression, eating disorders, and other struggles, the holidays can be an even more trying time and perhaps not for any of the reasons we’ve listed here. If you feel that your ‘holiday blues’ go far deeper than being sad about missing time with family, we encourage you to check out these resources for mental health abroad and this article on how to find and connect with an online therapist.

*Family, to us, is a very inclusive term and can encompass everything from what you traditionally think of as a family to a close-knit group of friends to an eclectic gathering of humans, coming together to be the love and support that each of them need from one another. Perhaps you haven’t had the time or opportunity to make close enough Spanish friends to tag along with anyone’s family—that’s okay!! You can find some great meet-up resources such as Couchsurfing or other Facebook groups that will connect you with others who are looking to share the holidays too!

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