If you are moving overseas, perhaps especially as a single without your family, it is bound to nag your thoughts at some point. Perhaps it’s the first concern you have. Perhaps you don’t even consider it til the day of. Regardless of when it appears, it will most certainly hit you eventually: you are away from your family for the holidays.
Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, birthdays, anniversaries, national holidays… There are so many days of the year spent celebrating with our loved ones. Often these days are flooded with traditions and familial significance beyond a simple textbook explanation of the day.
My first missions trip experience was three months long. In planning it, phrases such as, “I just need to make sure I’m home in time for Christmas,” and, “if I book my flight a day earlier, I can be home for my sister’s birthday,” guided my planning process. Planning around these events wasn’t a problem, because I still fulfilled my three months. Yes, I missed Thanksgiving, but compared to those other two events, it wasn’t too big of a deal for me.
Maybe when you are thinking about or planning your overseas experience, you are playing a similar timing game, trying to find the right length of stay at a time of year when you miss as little as possible. As long as you can do that without compromising your commitment or your calling, that’s great! However, you will likely eventually find yourself faced with a stay overseas that has to overlap with those special holidays. What happens then?
When I moved to Nepal for six months in January one year, the irony was not lost on me; I had been so relieved to make it home from Thailand in time for my sister’s birthday, and yet this six month period in Nepal meant I would miss my brother, my mom, and my dad’s birthdays – not to mention my own! My subsequent return to Thailand brought my first Christmas away from home, and in fact, completed my first full calendar year on my own.
Based on my experiences, here are some reflections and ideas of ways to keep your holidays special while overseas:
Try to identify what, aside from people, makes the holiday special for you. Certain foods? A specific article of clothing? A familiar movie or TV show? That sort of thing… And then make it happen! For me, this means making tourtiere Christmas Eve. This has been a tradition in my extended (French-Canadian) family for ages, and even though the side dishes weren’t the same (in Nepal, we made saag and achar to go with it), the flavours were familiar and comforting, and were part of what made it still feel like Christmas.
Be intentional about your plans. Don’t let the day come and go unrecognized, or you will probably regret it on some level afterwards and it will be too late to do anything about it. It might be hard to think about making fun holiday plans while you really just want to be sullen and mopey (yeah, honestly, I get it…), but in the end, you’ll wish you’d done something to mark the day. We all know plans don’t make themselves, and the longer you wait, the fewer pleasant options you may find available. So, go ahead and plan your own birthday party! Invite people over to make gingerbread houses! Whatever it is you wish you could be doing with people back home, do with people here! They may not appreciate it on the same level you do, but they will understand the importance of doing something familiar, or at the very least, they’ll just have fun!
Realise that others are going through the same emotions and thoughts that you are. Missing family and friends during holidays is part of living internationally, and while it may manifest itself differently in different people and vary in severity year by year, everyone is ‘feeling the holiday’ in their own way. So, instead of allowing yourself to get too inward-looking, and wind up bogged down with self-pity, turn your attention outward and look for ways to connect with other people. Throw a party to celebrate the holiday! Get together for coffee and have everyone bring their two favourite holiday pictures from past years to share with the group. Find out what makes the season special for someone else, and then plot a way to make it happen! Make your focus shift from you and your plight, to those around you and what you can do to brighten their holiday season.
Start your own traditions. While I do believe it’s important for your holiday to have some reminder of home and familiarity, sometimes it can also really help to start a new tradition for yourself. Doing this can be a refreshing acknowledgement that yes, things are different now, but I’m moving forward in this new phase of no-longer-at-home-ness. I’m still playing around with this one, trying to find what traditions I want to bother starting for myself, and for which holidays.
Those are just a few ways to approach spending holidays away from family. They won’t totally “fix” the problem or take away the loneliness (after all, that’s what keeps the holidays you DO spend with family extra special), but they will hopefully help to make your spirits brighter!
Regardless of where you are spending your holidays, or who you are spending them with, I hope and pray that this season will be filled with reasons to remember Christ and celebrate God’s goodness and constant presence in our lives. May the Holy Spirit comfort you when you are feeling alone, and may He use this Christmas without the distractions of family to reveal himself afresh to you.