Christmas, Covid and expat life

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Coronavirus Christmas

Well, it’s December… what a truly dreadful year 2020 has been. There is no denying that it’s probably been the most difficult year most of us have ever experienced.

I’m not a great fan of looking back, so I’m not going to do one of those retrospectives with ‘what I’ve learned from 2020, and how this crapfest has made me a better person’, because, quite frankly, I haven’t, and it hasn’t. It has been a struggle for many of us to simply get through this year, and I include myself in that.

And now we approach that family and tradition-oriented festival of Christmas. Christmas can often be difficult at the best of times for many expats as we live so far away from our family, and our friends are scattered. And this year… Well, covid-19 has dramatically and severely impacted so many people, in so many ways, that it seems churlish to complain that we can’t celebrate Christmas in the way we like. And the way we often celebrate Christmas as an expat is with trips back to our home countries or having family coming to visit us in our new host countries. This year, there are no big family gatherings because travel and uncertainty has made them impossible.

Before you start feeling guilty for feeling upset about not being able to celebrate the Christmas you hoped for, please remember that you are permitted to be sad about your Christmas plans going wrong. This is a legitimate disappointment, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of feeling that way. You may not have had the chance to see your family for a very long time and with the continuing global uncertainty, it’s hard to look forward at all. It is OK for you to feel sad about this.

So many families are separated this Christmas, whether they’re expat or not. I’m back in the UK these days, and my Mum lives about 100 miles away. Not far, really. But I won’t be visiting her this Christmas as there are just too many variables that we cannot control. She is vulnerable and shielding and the risk to her simply isn’t worth it. My husband, who is mostly working from home, does have to go into his office from time to time. And my daughter meets loads of people through college and her two part time jobs. So, although all precautions are taken, the chances of coming into contact with the virus are increased substantially.

Why are the Christmas holidays such a big deal for expats?

Christmas, by tradition for many people, is a time for all family members to get together. It’s a ‘standard’ school holiday in most countries, meaning we have the opportunity to all travel home and spend some quality time with our families.

As expats, the Christmas holiday season is often the main time of year that we do all get together. And you might feel that you’re making up for lost time and missed opportunities; those times that you haven’t been able to be with your family and friends – to meet new babies, for important birthdays, for weddings, or sadly for funerals. And, in a way, this annual trip home gives us a chance to assuage any guilt we may feel at choosing to live overseas.

Think about it this way: even if you are able to get home for Christmas, would it be like every other Christmas? Would it be the big Christmas gathering you’d love? Unlikely. Of course, every country has different rules right now, but I’m sure having to test and quarantine would be a factor in travelling between most of them. And it’s unlikely you’d be able to see everyone you’d wish to see due to social distancing rules. Here in the UK we have a concept called ‘bubbles’, which means ‘a group of people with whom you can visit’. Once in a bubble, you can’t start another with a different household. For large families, social distancing and ‘bubbles’ mean people can’t all celebrate in one home. They must choose who they want to be with. Ouch. So, Christmas is looking very different for all, regardless of expat status.

How to have the best Christmas possible

Too many people put far too much pressure on themselves for Christmas. It could be that until now, you’ve been organising a Christmas that doesn’t fit in with your life, particularly based on your current reality of living overseas in a global pandemic. This could be your chance to rip up the rule book and do something completely different.

How can you make this Christmas special in the situation that we’re in right now? Take Covid out of the picture. (I really wish we could, but we can’t, so we can only work with what we’ve got.)

Basically, how Christmas works out for you is all about spirit and attitude, and Christmas as an expat is more so. Christmas this year is going to be a very much smaller occasion for many people. Not being able to travel to be with big family groups means a more focused time with your immediate family.

This is one year that is going to be very different for reasons we couldn’t have known about this time last year. Try and focus on what you do have rather than what you don’t have right now.


You need to make Christmas, and this Christmas in particular, memorable for the right reasons. Don’t have it forever in your memory as the ‘2020 Christmas of Doom’. While the hashtag #makingmemories is pretty cringeworthy, this is exactly what you need to do. And don’t try too hard. The hashtag usually shows people trying too hard when the actual memories of an event are vastly different!

For example, our first Christmas in Japan. Quick backstory – daughter was just 5 years old, and we had arrived in Tokyo at the very end of November. So, Christmas was just around the corner, and it was an important event to help her settle into her new life. My Mum was coming over, so, to set the scene, a small family Christmas in Tokyo… when we didn’t know what was what.

Firstly, food. I soon discovered that Japan doesn’t ‘do Christmas’. It’s not a Christian country, so why would it? Although they’ve taken the festival on board, it holds a different meaning there. More akin to Valentine’s Day. KFC is their traditional Christmas meal, as apparently Colonel Sanders looks a little bit like Santa! No Christmas decorations could be found and the local supermarket was full of completely unfamiliar items. While I wasn’t absolutely set on certain menu, I did want a meal that everyone would eat. I think we ended up with tiny steaks, but I really can’t remember.

Because it turns out that those precious memories come, not from the food, but from spontaneity, of fun, of humour and, often, the little things that don’t go to plan… Such as when the cat brought in his first ever live mouse at 7am one Christmas morning in Germany, which meant my husband had to fully dismantle the kitchen in order to rescue it. Or the time I set my oven gloves alight when trying to flambée the pudding. Memories are made from these events.

Kagami mochi

Our memories of that first Christmas in Japan are just like that. I wanted to add something different to our meal and spotted a small pudding shaped thing in the supermarket food aisles. So, I bought it, intending it to be an end of Christmas dinner treat. It looked like two fat white buns, one placed on top of the other with a small orange on top and some extra decorations. I thought it would be a kind of mochi – a pounded rice cake. And in fact, I found out later that it is called Kagami mochi and it’s a New Year symbol for prosperity.

After our Christmas dinner I ceremoniously opened the box and began to carve it. I poked. I sawed. I jabbed. It would not slice at all. That’s weird – I’d tried mochi before and while it’s not soft, it wasn’t as solid as that. I was trying to slice a plastic decoration!

And that’s what we, as a family, remember about our first Christmas in Japan. It’s not the, frankly bog-standard meal. It’s not that we didn’t have decorations. What we all do remember is that was the Christmas that mum tried to make everybody eat a plastic decoration!

As I say, Christmas is about the memories, the way that you make it. It’s not necessarily about the traditions.

Other Christmas memories I enjoy looking back on: Germany – with snow, glorious markets, glühwein, chestnuts – basically the Christmas of picture books! And the gentle, South African Christmas in the middle of summer. I never did get used to that.

Flying over Pilanesberg

Our African Christmas’s were very memorable as we took on a new tradition there that can’t be repeated anywhere else and went on safari each year. One year I managed to make one of my Mum’s dreams come true by doing a hot air balloon flight. Now, this isn’t something that I would personally choose, but it was Mum’s dream, so I now have a fantastic memory of soaring high above the plains of South Africa with my mum – while I clung to the basket edge trying to get my fear of heights under control!

As I say, memories are not always what’s expected. Although you can plan to make good ones, I can almost guarantee your children will remember the strangest parts!

Each family and each country have different Christmas traditions, and that’s what makes it so special. Christmas is a composite of family traditions taken from yours and your partner’s families. Remember back when you spent your first Christmas together, did you find their traditions completely matched yours? No, I very much doubt it. Over the years, you drop some of yours, include some of theirs and vice versa, until you have your own personal family tradition. It’s all about compromise.

Then, as you have children, you create your own joint set of traditions. And it’s the same when spending Christmas in your new home country. The holiday season evolves to suit your life, your wishes, your needs, and your situation. It’s helpful to try and recreate at least some of your traditions to make Christmas abroad feel like Christmas at home.

It’s also a great opportunity to create new traditions and new customs, which in future years you can take with you to the next place. And those, in turn, will become your family’s new traditions. Think of these new traditions as enhancements. If your life is made up of living in different countries, then it makes sense to celebrate this and to take a little piece of each country with you each time you celebrate Christmas.

I collect Christmas tree baubles from around the world, so each year these gorgeous enhancements remind me of special Christmases past. I have a hula dancing Santa from Hawaii. I have Chinese symbols from China and hand beaded baubles from Africa and Temari balls from Japan and many more. And the fact that they’ve travelled the world with me and survived, makes them even more special. I’m looking forward to putting our tree up later this week.

Obviously, Christmas is a time when we think about being with our loved ones near and far. If you can’t be with your family, then set times to connect with them. Don’t forget about time zones. Do your time zone maths and plan ahead. You don’t want to phone somebody just as they’re heading off to church or sitting down to the big meal. Modern technology means that we can connect with someone on the other side of the world easier than ever before. You could even Skype the grandparents as the kids are opening up their presents so they can feel part of it all. And this year, I’m pretty sure Granny and Granddad are fully up to speed on technology!

Having said that, don’t make the people that you’re missing more important than the people that you’re with. I think most of us agree that Christmas is generally about the children. And what you can focus on is making their memories of this Christmas memorable for the right reasons, just by having a lovely, warm family Christmas, even if your gathering is somewhat smaller than you hoped. If you focus on what’s missing, then it’s going to make for a very miserable day. Focus on making it a really fantastic day and embracing what’s there, then you can have a fabulous time.

Attitude is everything. Please don’t get stressed out about Christmas. Make it great for your children. Make it great for your partner. Make it great for the family that you can’t be with. And above all, make it great for you. Don’t stress about stuff that you cannot control or fix.

And remember too, that Christmas naturally changes anyway. As your children grow up, they move away, they find their own partners and have their own children. This year it’s simply changed suddenly and scarily and unexpectedly and maybe somewhat harsher than could be expected.

I want you to have a wonderful Christmas. I want you to make the best of it. Dreadful phrase, but it is the only thing that we can really do this year. And remember, this is just one Christmas out of many before, and many in the future. If you’re away from the big family get-together this year, take the opportunity to have a very different, yet special Christmas. Maybe a romantic one of it’s just the two of you, or a warm, quiet and simple family Christmas, just you and the children.

One day, Christmas will be ‘back to normal’ again. For this year, support each other and create some new Christmas memories. Focus on the simple things, take it all back to basics and feel grateful for what you do have.

I’d like to wish you all a peaceful Christmas, wherever you are in the world, full of love, care, fun, laughter, good memories and, above all, good health.

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