Spending the holidays away from home can be one of the most difficult aspects of long-term travel. Whether or not you are religious, the holidays are a time for tradition and family togetherness. When you are far away from the familiar it can be very easy to start feeling lonely and sorry for yourself.
I’ve spent two Christmases (and three thanksgivings!) away from home. The first was a miserable sleepless Christmas Eve spent in the departures hallway of Heathrow. Not the gate area, I sat in an uncomfortable plastic chair near the check-in desk and watched a homeless man get comfy behind my luggage. This fun evening was followed by a cramped 6-hour flight on Christmas morning. Not my best year.
The second Christmas I spent in London was actually not that bad at all. Here are four things I did which made the holiday much more bearable.
Find a Community
At that point I working in London and sharing a flat with three crazy Australian boys, who obviously weren’t going to make it home for Christmas either. We also had two Australian girls staying with us and I invited another American girl I knew to come spend the holiday. With 7 of us all in the same boat, it wasn’t such a lonely experience at all.
Whether you are living abroad or actively traveling, there are sure to be other people in the same situation who you can reach out to. Friends, the local ex-pat community, other traveler’s in the hostel- nobody wants to be alone at Christmas. They may not be your closest family and friends, but you’ll be shocked to see how quickly bonds can form.
It was really important to me to have a Christmas tree, even if I didn’t have any presents to put under it. On my way home from work I stopped by Paperchase and picked out the tackiest, most colorful tabletop aluminum tree I could find. When I set it up the boys stared perplexidly at it before laughing and topping it with a men’s leopard print g-string (our houses mascot… don’t ask). It was goofy as hell but it never failed to cheer me up.
I think that incorporating some of your annual traditions can give you a feeling of comfort and continuity in a new place. It may take some creative improvisation but try to honor at least one important tradition. It could be baking Christmas cookies, attending a religious service or maybe just spending some time volunteering with the less fortunate. Pick something that will evoke the feelings of home without making yourself terribly homesick.
Pick up some New Traditions
When I’m at home I’ll usually spend Christmas Eve watching holiday movies or, if we are feeling particularly energetic that year, at midnight mass. This is not how my new Australian family rolled. Apparently in Brisbane, it is traditional to go out on Christmas Eve and party like the world is ending. Festooned in Santa hats and bows we headed down the Shepherd’s Bush Walkabout and joined the racous antipodien party.
It was the first time I ever woke up on Christmas morning with a hangover. Santa would not approve.
Part of the whole point of travel is so absorb other cultures. Holiday time is a perfect opportunity to expand your horizons and see how other people celebrate. If you find yourself somewhere that isn’t even celebrating at that moment, well try and find something else cultural to do that day (or at least treat yourself to a big meal).
When All Else Fails, Hit the Sauce
While the more competent members of our “family” cooked up a Christmas Feast, I helped my roommate Ryan mix up the all important Christmas Punch. I honestly can’t remember any of the ingredients now except vodka. A LOT of vodka. After a couple mugs of the stuff I was too full of “Christmas cheer” to be homesick. I spent most of the afternoon helpless on the sofa watching Gone with the Wind (inexplicably on the BBC).
This last point may not be the healthiest advice but it’s the holidays and anything cheering is fair game. You certainly want to create a merry buzz as opposed to a drunk brooding stupor. Whatever gets you through I say.
They say that there’s no place like home for the holidays and that is absolutely true. When you are stuck many miles away though, you have a unique opportunity to embrace the season in a new and personal way.