You might be as far away as another country or as close as the same city and still not get to see your family and friends during the holidays this year—a harsh reality that no one could have predicted pre-pandemic. It’s already been too much alone time, even for folks with an introverted streak like myself, so I get it if you’re feeling emotional about forgoing your normal holiday plans.
Of the eight years I lived abroad in Europe, I got to celebrate the holidays with my friends and family back home maybe twice. Before you hit me with “it was your choice to move far away,” absolutely, you’re right. I did not choose, though, to make a salary in Spain that’s below the poverty line in the U.S., only being able to afford a flight home once a year, and having a limited amount of vacation days.
The silver lining is that I learned how to spend the holidays “alone” and away from home. My understanding of what home means changed along with these newfound skills. It’s true when they say that, “Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling,” and you can recreate that feeling just about anywhere. While I’m going to share with you how I experienced the holidays on my own while I was abroad, I’m also going to help you figure out how to recreate those warm fuzzies in a pandemic-friendly way.
Leave no one behind
Y’all are probably so sick of me harping on about the kindness of strangers and how willing people are to help you when you’re living abroad, but it’s no joke. Though not complete strangers by the time the holidays rolled around, I swiftly got swept under the wings of my new friends and brought along to their family functions. I hardly had a choice—it was a simple, “You have nowhere to go, so you’re coming with us.”
Some version of this continued to happen almost every year while I was in Spain, where Christmas and New Year’s are celebrations on a scale and in a way I’ve never seen before. Both include a huge family dinner that goes until at least midnight, from which you go straight to the second party or out to the bars with your friends until Lord only knows what hour. Think a big weekend night out in college—but way less sloppy and way better dressed.
I hardly had a choice—it was a simple, “You have nowhere to go, so you’re coming with us.”
While it’s not advisable to go inside someone else’s house right now, the idea of helping others feel less alone around the holidays is still possible. Drop holiday notes in people’s mailboxes, organize a socially distanced sing-a-long or online game night with festive drinks, run errands for an elderly neighbor, or offer to put up Christmas decorations for someone. Don’t underestimate the power of a kind gesture, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
“Kiss me thru the phone”
If you haven’t done a single video call yet this year, you’re definitely going to lose every single version of COVID-19 pandemic bingo on your friend’s Instagram stories. But video calls are a favorite pastime for most ex-pats, one of few ways to feel a genuine connection with loved ones in other parts of the world.
Recently, an old memory flashed across my Facebook of my first Thanksgiving away from home in 2012. My mom set up a laptop and started a Skype call that included my grandma (mom’s mom), my grandpa (dad’s dad), and herself. Various other family members and pets floated in and out of the screen, allowing me to feel like, if only for a few moments, a part of the day’s festivities. It’s one of the last vivid memories I have of my grandfather, who passed in August of the following year.
Some years later while in Denver, Colorado, for two months on a work exchange trip, the reverse occurred in the most delightful of ways. At Glamping Hub, we celebrated Thanksgiving as our big company holiday party, since many of my coworkers were ex-pats who went home for Christmas. Since I had to miss the main event that year, one of my good friends and favorite coworkers FaceTimed me and “took me around the party” to say hi to and see everyone.
Everyone is sick of seeing their loved ones on a screen. We all are more than ready for the live-action remake. Until that’s possible, however, I strongly urge you to plan video calls with your loved ones, especially people who live alone, aging relatives, and those friends who seem like they have it all together all the time. (Hint: They don’t—they’re just good at hiding it and bad at asking for help.) Even if it ends up only being a five-minute call, I always feel incredibly grateful when someone takes the time out of their day to connect with me.
Christmas in July, anyone?
Anyone who knows my mom knows she is probably the cutest, sweetest, and most thoughtful human being to walk this Earth. She is the queen of making me feel loved and extra special at all times, even (maybe even especially) when I was living a million miles away from her. Her creativity and fun-loving spirit are unmatched, too, which leads to a lot of funny presents, quirky costumes, and new activities.
One year on my annual trip home to Wisconsin, my mom organized an early Thanksgiving—complete with extended family and all the food and fixings—just so I could celebrate with everyone. We hadn’t all been together like that in years. That was the first time I finally got to meet the majority of my cousins’ children. It may not have been the third Thursday in November, but it sure felt like it. I’m pretty sure we even popped on a Christmas movie after everyone finished eating and the tryptophan started to work its magic.
Amid our current limitations, I’m not saying cancel Christmas, as I think that’d be a blow to the psyche that none of us are prepared for. What I am saying is that it may even be more fun to start thinking about and planning a celebration for when we all can safely be together again. Maybe it’s time to consider Christmas in July as more than just a group activity started at an all-girls camp in North Carolina in 1933 or the 1940s film.
Feed your feelings
Traditional foods and flavors are a big way that I feel a connection to home. That could be finding one of my favorite American candies in a store abroad or calling my mom for hot tips on how to make a family recipe. When I celebrated American holidays and traditions abroad, it involved food almost every single time.
Back to that famed first Thanksgiving while living in the small town of Valverde del Camino, I didn’t have an oven, which was a big problem for someone whose hobby is baking and loves pumpkin pie. My mom had even sent me the ingredients that I needed! Luckily my friends had a “clubhouse” that had a small convection oven, which would do the trick.
I decided to prepare the pies ahead of time at home and then take them over to bake. I made the mistake, however, of filling the pies with the liquid-y filling (anyone who has ever made a pumpkin pie will know what I mean) before I started walking there. Clumsy old me has never walked slower in my life so as to not spill a drop of pie filling between my house and the oven I so desperately needed.
The following year, I had an oven and didn’t have to relive that nightmare, but a good friend and I did decide to cook an entire Thanksgiving meal for our friend group. (We also introduced them to a proper American brunch come springtime.) There also hasn’t been a single Christmas I haven’t baked Christmas cookies, more often than not having friends come over to help decorate and have a glass of cava or two.
I’d give anything to get to bake alongside my grandma this year—or at least have her watch and laugh as I do all the heavy lifting. I’m sure we all have our version of that, right? Something that we’re longing for to happen again. But until we can get back in the kitchen or around the dinner table with our nearest and dearest, it’s time to be inventive.
Get all the necessary ingredients for your favorite holiday dish or Christmas cookie sent to your family’s or friend’s house and make it together over Zoom. Order takeout from the same place, stream the same Christmas movie and share a holiday-themed evening. Surprise a loved one with a festive treat by getting their partner or roommate in on the secret.
The little things really do matter
I know none of this replaces the fact that the world has been on fire and we’ve been stuck inside our houses watching it burn for almost the entirety of 2020. Everything feels bad sometimes. I get it. I can’t sit here and tell you that celebrating the holidays away from my family almost every year for the better part of a decade felt awesome. Much like with most things that involve our beautiful, yet fragile brains, however, we need to push ourselves to find ways to make it feel better, even if it seems like an elaborate prank at the time.
AUTHOR BIO: From Wisconsin to southern Spain. Bilingual writer, editor, and translator. Never not looking for a great cup of coffee. That friend who stops to pet every dog.