Five Tips for Staying Sane on Christmas: The Expat Special

As beautiful as it is, Christmas is stressful for everyone, and even more so for expats. You have to decide if you can afford to go home this year, or if you even want to, and if you have kids, you need to figure out what’s best for them. If you stay put in your adopted homeland, then you might have to celebrate without the usual rituals that are automatically understood back home.

Some years ago, when I was living in the UK, my partner, a mate, and I decided to spend Christmas in Český Krumlov, one of the most picturesque places in the Czech Republic. For us three Australians, the thought of spending our first “White Christmas” in a medieval winter wonderland was incredibly exciting. We stayed in our own gorgeous little villa attached to a large youth hostel and had been invited to share in the Christmas meal.

Maybe we were a bit too excited because we lost track of the days leading up to Christmas and accidentally got far too drunk the night of 23 December. Unfortunately, we hadn’t realized that in a Czech town, the big dinner would be held on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day, as is customary both in Australia and the UK. I spent a miserable day with my head over the toilet while our temporary family ate until they were stuffed full of Christmas goodness… Not quite the celebrations I’d imagined.

The following year I shared in an “Orphans’ Christmas” in Ireland in a lovely hired house in the countryside. These experiences, as well as many others over the years, have helped me realize that celebrating Christmas abroad is a skill rather than a bewildering mess.

So no matter if you are spending Christmas in a new home for the first or the seventh time, here are five tips to help you enjoy the day and keep your mental health on an even keel.

1) Accept and embrace that things will be different.

Plan something special, but allow it to be different from what you know. Welcome the difference instead of trying to make it all the same. The advantage of having Christmas away from home is that you get to reinvent some of the usual aspects (and erase the less desirable parts).

2) Delegate jobs and involve the whole clan via cultural contributions.

Don’t try and take the whole day on yourself: shouldering the sole responsibility of making it the perfect Christmas is surely a ticket to disaster. Instead, invite everyone who will be celebrating with you to do some research on Christmas in your adopted home. Each person can then make a cultural contribution in the form of local customs and traditions: food, a game, a story, a song, or a ritual.

If you have children, make sure to get them involved, too. Kids tend to be a lot more agreeable if they have genuine ownership and responsibility for what they take part in. You can all talk about what each person is going to do — but try not to make it competitive! No one’s contribution is more meaningful than anyone else’s, please.

3) Honor your own traditions.

Whether you and your guests are all from the same country, or from many different ones, each person can also contribute a tradition from their own home. “Home” might mean their family or the culture they come from, their country of origin, or a specific region.

Can you imagine how wide that range of diverse Christmas traditions will be even if you are all from the same place?

4) Be organized, but not controlling.

For example, do arrange times to Skype with your loved ones back home and wish them a merry Christmas; do figure out which cultural contribution everyone is going to make or how to pose for a great holiday picture; do make sure that you have enough food and drinks and gifts and holiday movies or whatever else is important to you.

But do not lose your mind if something isn’t perfect. Mistakes can sometimes turn into funny anecdotes, fond memories, or even traditions of their own!

5) Allow and express your real emotions.

If you suddenly feel like crying because you really miss your grandma, who passed away, or if you are homesick, then please do cry. Maybe even share your feelings —— with someone in your family or a fellow “orphan” — because I guarantee you will not be the only one who has those moments of overwhelming sadness, even in the middle of a joyful day. Keeping your feelings pent up can actually lead to a disastrous time: you may express that energy as anger or bitterness instead of simply being sad.

Radical empathy means expressing true feelings and also holding space for others when they express their genuine emotions, rather than trying to fix them or give them advice. There’s no greater gift than trusting someone with your vulnerabilities and having them trust you in return. Allowing yourself to shed some tears and telling someone what has made you sad — even to a child — can be a beautiful thing. In fact, if you can’t give anything else this Christmas, the gifts of trust and love and solidarity in action transcend most boundaries and can last a lifetime.

Some final advice: do take some time to reflect, and take care of yourself, your loved ones, and even strangers this holiday season. And don’t forget to reach out to a professional if things should get overwhelming: there’s never any shame in getting help!

Nicole Hind_smallNicole is a professional online counselor with a passion for helping people discover their untold stories. She has particular interest in supporting women to increase self-esteem, heal from trauma, and find their own power. Like many Aussies, Nicole loves travel and enjoys getting creative with mindfulness ideas that can be adapted to any environment.

(Image credit: 1)-6) iStockphoto 7) Nicole Hind)

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