How to Celebrate the Holidays Without Family: Advice from an Expat

This year has been filled with so much uncertainty. As the holiday season is upon us, many are faced with the hard decision to simply say no to family gatherings as we attempt to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Although Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas are meant to be joyous celebrations, we can’t help but feel grief and sadness. Of course, there is nothing like spending the holidays at home with our loved ones but there are still ways to make this year’s holiday season just as memorable as any other. 

As an expat I can empathize with what everyone is feeling, however being away has given me the advantage of knowing how to push forward. All that aside, the holidays away from family can be difficult.

I’m not here to sugar coat the situation but would like to share what my family has done to help us through it while still being able to feel togetherness and holiday cheer.

Just because 2020 looks different, it doesn’t mean that the festivities will be bad.

My husband, two daughters, and I have been living overseas for three years. Being able to travel home for the holidays isn’t an option for us considering the cost of four international tickets during December, combined with our work schedules. As much as we’d like the option to go home, it just hasn’t been in the cards. While others are feeling this impact for the first time, this isn’t going to be our first rodeo away. Since becoming expats we have become more creative during these times and have found ways to celebrate while we being 7,584 kilometers away from the shores of the U.S.

Continuing our family tradition of fondue night on Christmas Eve.

Tips for Celebrating the Holidays Without Family

Focus on what you’re gaining, not what you’re missing.

Spend some time this month reflecting on how much family and friends mean to you. Write a letter of appreciation, send a care package, or video chat with an old friend to catch up.  Then, make homecoming plans for later and make a point to celebrate in a big way once everyone can gather again.

Keep the traditions while also introducing your own.

Just because you aren’t together doesn’t mean that you can’t continue with the many traditions that you look forward to. For us, we kept up with the cookie baking, eggnog creating, gingerbread house assembling, and Christmas light experiencing. Of course this felt a little different, but it still felt great to keep it going. These moments are still very precious and should be continued whether alone or with a large gathering. Also, one of the advantages of living in 2020 is technology. Why not video chat with grandparents, cousins, parents, or friends while partaking in these traditions?

Continuing with our cookie decorating tradition.

Continue to decorate . . . even if just a little.

Sometimes the simplest little bit of decoration can fill you with the holiday spirit and remind you of past memories. Don’t deprive yourself of feeling the warmth of the season simply because others can’t see it.

Seek out others who are alone.

Although this might be your first holiday away from loved ones, it might not be the first for someone else. Why not video chat with someone experiencing the same feeling? Make a plan to “meet up” virtually and have a cup of hot cocoa or a hot toddy to celebrate together.

Use this time to volunteer . . . safely.

Take this as an opportunity to give back to others who are less fortunate or have been impacted by the pandemic. Not only will this allow you to feel a part of something bigger but it will switch your energy and focus outward vs. inward.

Avoid social media like the plague . . . no pun intended.

Social media is the perfect place to allow depression to set in. Not everyone will be practicing social distance and seeing their celebrations will only make you feel like a lump of coal. If you need to, delete the app from your phone or hide it in a cupboard until after the holidays.

Additional Ways to Find Holiday Cheer in the Iowa City Area

Check out the ICM’s Giving Guide for some ideas on ways to give back in the community during the holidays. And if you’re up for events and activities, check out ICM’s Holiday Guide for a mega list of virtual and in-person family activities.

Mary, a native of Rockford, Illinois, attended DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois where she received her BA in Secondary Art Education. In 2007, she moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa after accepting a position as a high school visual arts teacher with the Cedar Rapids Community School District. She and her husband, Collin, who is a teacher in the Iowa City Community School District, reside in Cedar Rapids with their daughters, Zoey and Munroe. Zoey is five and Munroe will be turning one in October 2016. In addition to being a full time mommy, full time teacher, and writer for the mom’s blog, she is also a professional artist who has shown and published works both nationally and internationally. Mary enjoys traveling, painting, and most of all, spending time with her family.


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