A lot of people choose to be abroad at Christmas. But as an expat, celebrating Christmas abroad is part and parcel of our lives. Sometimes it gets lonely, and people get the holiday blues, but I think adopting some new traditions and blending them with the old ones is a fantastic way to thrive, not just survive Christmas.
The dreams of spending Christmas abroad in 2020 were crushed for a lot of people. So I’m doing my best to fill the void by asking my expat blogger buddies to write a bit about how they celebrate the Christmas holiday abroad.
Keep reading to find out how expats from around the world celebrate Christmas in new ways.
An American Expat Adopts New Traditions in England
By Chelsea from The Portable Wife
Given the shared language and history between England and the US, I was surprised by the number of Christmas activities that happen in Britain but not in the states. But as a lover of all things Christmas, I was eager to adopt these new traditions after moving to England from America.
My new favorite holiday tradition is the Advent Calendar.
There are all sorts of Advent Calendar designs, but the primary feature is a little door or window for every day of Advent leading up to Christmas. Each day, you open up the door to reveal a picture/quote/verse, or in the case of 3D calendars, a small toy or sweet. While it’s not unique to England–the concept originated in Germany–I love waking up to a little surprise treat every day.
In addition to the Advent Calendar, we’ve adopted several other English Christmas traditions. Perhaps the most interesting is the Christmas Day walk, where people across the country leave their presents and homes around 2 pm to go for a stroll with their families. Some cities hold organized walks, though most people choose to walk around their local common, park, or neighborhood. As Londoners, we particularly love going into the city center and walking past the gorgeous Christmas shop displays.
And of course, no English Christmas would be complete without Christmas crackers. Invented by a London candy maker in the 1800s, Christmas crackers are made of cardboard tubing and shiny wrapping paper and contain a small prize. Traditionally, two people pull apart the cracker (one holding each end), making a popping sound when split. The person holding the end with the prize gets to keep it.
Abroad at Christmas as an expat in Buenos Aires
By Erin from Sol Salute
Christmas in Buenos Aires feels very much like it does back home in the United States and at the same time completely foreign.
Argentina was largely settled by European immigrants. Thanks to the many Italian, Spanish, and French families that came here we share many of the same traditions. However, being in the southern hemisphere Christmas takes place at the peak of summer. Dishes best enjoyed in cold wintery Europe – like heavy cakes, turkey, and red wine – are eaten stubbornly in the sweltering 37-degree December days here.
The Christmas season officially kicks off on the 8th of December, the day of the Virgin Mary (el Día de la Virgen). In residential neighborhoods, church congregations will conduct parades with the statue of the Virgin Mary as they pray. In a country that is far from religious it’s a uniquely religious day. The season ends on January 6th, 3 Kings Day.
For celebrations, the focus is solely on Christmas Eve. Fireworks explode across the city as the strike clocks midnight, as if it were New Years’ Eve. The best place to view the fireworks is from one of the rooftop bars in Puerto Madero downtown.
Christmas Day itself is sluggish and uneventful as everyone generally nurses hangovers by the pool.
How Christmas is Catching on in Taiwan
By Nick from Spiritual Travels
Christmas is not formally celebrated in my adopted country, Taiwan. It is a regular working day. In recent years, Christmas has become more of a thing, but more so its commercial aspects (like department store sales and Christmas decorations in shops), and less so as a family holiday.
Christmas is also overshadowed by New Year’s Eve, in which millions gather in the streets to watch fireworks being shot from Taipei 101, and Lunar New Year, a much more important holiday for locals, equivalent to our Christmas break.
Still, in recent years, a definite fascination with and desire to celebrate Christmas has caught on in Taiwan.
City governments have gone to new levels putting up decorations. The most extreme example is New Taipei City, which puts on a sprawling, over-the-top Christmas-themed outdoor display called Christmasland. The event features a month of concerts in an enormous square completely plastered in lights and decorations, including tunnels of lights, towering trees of flashing LCD panels, and more. The event attracts hundreds of thousands of people.
In another attempt to “do” Christmas, Taipei has also put on a number of European-style Christmas markets, including one modeled on Strasbourg in France.
As an expat who loves Christmas, these events help to add a hint of Christmas spirit to my December in Taiwan. It is difficult being away from my family, and they just really miss the mark of what Christmas feels like in Canada. To fill that void, I typically gather with my group of friends, my “family” in Taiwan, to have a Christmas feast, exchange presents, and overall enjoy what we consider to be a more authentic Christmas vibe. Like us, I know many other expats in Taiwan do the same, while expat-run restaurants usually offer home-style Christmas meals at this time.
Christmas Abroad for an Expat in Denmark
By Derek from Robe Trotting
We’ve been living in Copenhagen for almost four years, and we’ve loved every Christmas abroad in our new city.
One of the first things we fell for in Copenhagen is the lovely Christmas markets all over the city. It’s like every major square in the city is home to rows of gift vendors and food stands. Our favorite thing to do is walk around the city and have a cup of gløgg, warm mulled wine, and the Danish holiday pastry, æbleskiver.
One of our favorite places during Christmastime is the famous amusement park, Tivoli Gardens. It looks like you’re walking onto the set of a Christmas movie and we love that the rides are operating all winter.
One thing we were shocked by is the Danish workplace Christmas party or “julefrokost”. It translates to Christmas lunch but it’s a huge dinner with copious amounts of alcohol. It does not include spouses, and is an office party where the expectation is to completely let loose and be overserved. It’s very different from an American office Christmas party.
The traditional Danish Christmas meal is very specific and includes several types of fish with sauces and a rice pudding for dessert. We’ve tried it several times, and while it’s not bad – we greatly prefer the mulled wine and pastries.
One thing we miss from Christmas in the USA is how there is diversity in cultural celebrations. Almost all of our friends do something different in the melting pot of the United States and Danes are a mono-culture where there is one uniform way of celebrating the holiday.
Still, we love being able to include ourselves in many of the traditions of our new home country and spending the holidays abroad at Christmas.
Fairies and Folklore: How to Celebrate an Irish Christmas
By Maria from Maptrekking
Have you wondered what Christmas is like on the Emerald Isle?
Though I am American, I live in Ireland with my partner Ciaran. My time here has been sort of a cultural immersion since he is from here and has helped me to understand why things are the way they are. I have loved experiencing his family traditions, especially when we go to his family’s place for a few days to celebrate Christmas time.
Something interesting to me about Ireland is the folklore and superstition. I was surprised to find that there are unspoken rules that people of all ages follow and believe in due to superstitions.
Many visitors to Ireland also do not know that folklore was heavily prevalent up until the 20th century (eg. people torturing or killing those who they thought were fairies/changelings living among them).
Belief in folklore and superstition impacts holidays too.
Like many others, Ciaran’s family believes in fairies and superstitions. One of the most obvious physical signs is at Christmas when they put a fairy on top of the Christmas tree. Of course, with Catholicism being prominent in Ireland, they will also sometimes put a star on top of the tree if certain family members were coming to visit.
My favorite tradition is picking out a fairy figurine to give Ciaran’s family as part of their Christmas gift. His mother especially loves them and has quite the collection. To my surprise, they are not too difficult to find in the stores near us and there are some beautiful designs to choose from.
If you want to learn more about Irish folklore beyond cute fairy figurines, read The Good People by Hannah Kent for a more accurate picture of how these beliefs ruled society in the past.
How to Party Abroad at Christmas in St. Kitts
By Steph and Lewis from Book It Let’s Go
Visitors know it as the St Kitts and Nevis National Carnival. However, the locals call it Sugar Mas.
Sugar Mas regularly ranks as St Kitts largest event of the year and it is one of the best things to do on St Kitts and Nevis. We love immersing ourselves in Kittitian culture with the festivities which start at the end of November. There are many local fetes, live music events and multiple carnival parades between Christmas and New Year.
Christmas day in St Kitts is a traditional Christian celebration, with church services, family dinners and gift-giving. However, things really kick up a notch with the J’ouvert day parade on December 26th when Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts, becomes party central starting at 4 am and there are colourful decorations throughout the town. The celebrations continue through to 2nd January and end with the last lap parade.
There are Carnival parades on multiple days for all ages to join in including various children’s events and a specific parade for them. Anyone is welcome to take part in the parades and don one of the fantastic elaborate feathered costumes or if you prefer you can watch from the side-lines where the festive cheer and atmosphere is infectious.
The event also serves a cultural purpose as folklore groups dominate the activities, introducing the crowd to moko jumbies, masqueraders, clowns, and other traditional figures.
The annual carnival celebrations bring together expats and locals at the most festive time of the year and really show the vibrant Caribbean way of life.
How to Spend a Traditional Christmas in Northern Portugal
By Alexandrina from EarthOSea
Portugal is known for its grandiose festivities and Christmas and New Years are not any different. The Portuguese people know how to have fun and their traditions are for sure ones to remember.
Some of the best traditions are in the north part of Portugal, in the founding cities of the country. This is the part of Portugal where traditions have been celebrated for centuries and have not changed much.
One of these traditions is the Bananeiro, which is a Portuguese tradition celebrated in the city of Braga every Christmas. The locals gather in pubs and restaurants to drink Moscatel de Setúbal and eat bananas. After that, people go for a traditional Christmas dinner and at last, visit the nearest church to sing Christmas songs.
When it comes to celebrating New Year’s Eve, the Portuguese people go big. Usually, they eat 12 raisins at midnight to secure themselves a good life for the year ahead. They also buy new blue underwear, wear new clothes, and keep money in their pockets. The more money they have in their pockets, the better the year will be.
Every New Year’s Eve in Portugal is accompanied by lots of concerts and festivals. In the end, there are fireworks shows in every city. If you happen to be in Madeira at the time, you will enjoy the World’s Biggest Fireworks Show.
Wherever you go in Portugal to celebrate Christmas or New Year, you are guaranteed to have lots of fun. Portugal is truly a country where you can have the best time during these sacred days of the year.
Christmas Abroad for an Expat in Columbia
By Phoebe from Your Green Grass Project
I’ve spent nearly three years being a digital nomad in Colombia and while there are downsides to working remotely and spending Christmas away from your family, there are also plenty of positives.
For example, getting to experience new Christmas traditions!
Colombians love a good party and any excuse to celebrate is taken to the extreme. Christmas starts early and parties take place throughout December. From decorations to music to drinking, everything is over the top and fabulous.
In Colombia, they celebrate Dia de las Velitas on the 7th of December, which translates as Day Of The Little Candles. It’s a lovely tradition with religious roots. You’ll find the streets lined with candles or paper lanterns, making for a magical view.
Where I live in Cali, it’s warm weather so families celebrate outside their house in the evening with music and traditional Christmas dishes. It’s lovely walking through your local neighborhood lit by candlelight and seeing all the families enjoying time together with the soundtrack of Christmas Salsa songs.
Christmas food in Colombia is a big deal, and fried food is where it’s at. Enjoy delicious Buñuelos which are essentially fried dough balls made to be either sweet or savoury, a rich cream dessert called Natilla as well as the all-time classic, rice pudding.
Living Abroad for Christmas in Germany – Christmas Markets and Krampus
By LeAnna from Wandering Germany
Christmas in Germany is simply magical.
While the cobblestoned streets and half-timbered houses in quaint villages are a fairytale at any time of year, there is something about them that comes to a different life when the Weinachtmarkts and Christkindle Markts (Christmas Markets) are scattered around the towns.
As the daylight fades, each vendor stall is illuminated by a soft warm glow, showcasing their handicrafts, foods, and trinkets to buy. The waft of warm Glühwein fills the air (and your tummy) and suddenly, you feel transported to a magical Christmas world.
But don’t get too cozy. On December 5th, in Southern Bavaria, beware of the horrifying Krampus; a half-demon, half goat-man that will steal naughty children to take them back to his lair!
However, on the following morning of the 6th, kids gleefully set out their shoes to be filled with goodies to be filled by St. Niklaus for all the “good boys and girls.”
And of course, the AdventKalendar in Germany is not to be taken lightly! Both kids and adults alike love to open each little door for every day of Advent, typically revealing a sweet treat to enjoy.
Finally, in Germany, the Christmas season doesn’t end on December 25th. No, on January 6th, all throughout town, little children will be dressed as Kings. Particularly in Bavaria, they will go door to door “blessing” your home for the upcoming year.
Whether you are enjoying Lebkuchen (German gingerbread), visiting the best Christmas Markets in Germany, or being chased by a Krampus, Christmas in Germany is sure to be a new favorite time of year.
Spending Christmas Abroad in France vs. New Zealand
By Nadine from Le Long Weekend
Christmas in my native New Zealand couldn’t be more different from Christmas in our new home of France.
While in NZ we used to celebrate with a bbq lunch, backyard cricket and big family celebrations. Our current celebrations are more centred around typical festive traditions and intimate family moments.
Obviously, the climate plays a big part in these discrepancies, with Christmas in New Zealand taking place in the summer months when beaches and ice-creams take centre stage. And having had a lot of family there meant getting together to celebrate en masse.
Nowadays, it’s just our little family of three celebrating Xmas at home in Provence. But the lead up to Christmas has become more a part of the celebration. We attend the Christmas markets in Aix-en-Provence and around the region, wandering around with steaming cups of vin chaud and warm chestnuts in our hands.
We wet our wheat seeds on December 4th (a local Provence tradition), and we enjoy partaking in the 13 desserts. And although we haven’t bought any Santons yet (locally made clay figurines depicting Christmas scenes), these will no doubt make an appearance in our home before long!
Overall, celebrating the Christmas holiday abroad isn’t worse or better, just different. And we’ve loved learning about new ways to celebrate.
Christmas for Months for an Expat in Manila
By Marco from Nomadic-FIRE
Do you LOVE Christmas?
You may think your culture loves the Christmas holidays, but few countries love Christmas as much as the Philippines. The Philippines has the world’s longest Christmas season. Locals jokingly refer to the Christmas season as the “ber” season. As in the months that end in “ber”: September, October, November, and December. I retired and moved to the Philippines in October. By the time I arrived, the yuletide celebrations were in full swing.
Christmas decorations, bought in August, are fully lit by September. Everywhere you look in Manila is coated in blinking, flashing, and strobing bulbs of red and green. The Central Business District of Makati puts on a holiday light show considered one of the most decorative in the world. Yup, a country where the average worker earns less than $500 per month blows money on lights that rival most developed nations.
What drives the Christmas craziness?
The Philippines is one of the most Catholic countries in the world, with over 90% of the population identifying as Christian. Combine the religious fervor with the consumerist mall culture (the Philippines was recently home to 3 of the Top 10 largest malls in the world), and you have 4-months of constant neighborhood Christmas parades, nearly daily holiday parties, and weekly yuletide concerts.
Oh, and church. Lots of church.
Simbang Gabi, or Evening Mass, is a Filipino tradition that starts on December 16. Every night from the 16th up until a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, Filipinos will attend church. Nine straight nights of praying.
There is even an old legend that a Catholic completing all nine services gets a wish granted at the end.
Crowns and Christmas Pudding for Christmas in England
By Shobha from Epic England Travel
Celebrating Christmas in England has quite a few differences from Christmas in the USA.
For example, in England, you have two days of public holidays – one for Christmas and one for the day after, known as Boxing Day.
The origins of Boxing Day are unclear and could refer to the bygone tradition of the rich giving the day off to their servants the day after Christmas. The rich would give boxed food to their servants, who would visit their own families because they would have worked on the actual Christmas day. It’s wonderful to have an extra public holiday after the excitement of Christmas Day to recuperate.
Another aspect of an English Christmas that I have come to appreciate is the Christmas meal. People have Christmas crackers that they pull apart within which there is a silly joke to tell, a small gift and a paper crown to wear. It always feels joyous when everyone is wearing a silly hat.
The meal always ends with Christmas Pudding – a cake with dried fruit that has been traditionally served at Christmas since the Middle Ages. Christmas Pudding takes months to prepare, so most people nowadays serve a store bought version. At the end of the meal, brandy is poured over the Christmas Pudding and set on fire. It’s always a spectacle, and the cake itself is delicious especially drowned in English custard.
On Christmas Day at 3 pm, the Queen broadcasts her Christmas Speech to her subjects in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries. This tradition where she recaps the year and wishes everyone well was started by her father in 1932. Millions of people around the world tune in to listen to this speech. In the 2019 broadcast, much was made of the fact that the Queen broadcast her message from a room that had a gold piano in the corner!
New Christmas Traditions for a Bulgarian Expat in Spain
By Eva from Elevate Calm
I grew up in Bulgaria, a country in Eastern Europe where the most common religion is Orthodox Christianity.
Growing up, I used to be most excited about Christmas Eve. My mom would set up a table with 12 exquisite plant-based dishes, symbolizing the 12 months of the year. Late in the evening, we would unwrap the Christmas presents. As a result, the lunch we had on Christmas Day was of less importance.
On New Year’s Eve, we would have another big celebration. One of the most cherished traditions is eating banitsa, a delicious pastry made with thin sheets and feta cheese. In each slice, there is a different lucky charm: good health, new house, having a baby, love, etc. The lucky charms give you a heads-up of what to expect in the year ahead.
When I moved to the Canary Islands (Spain), I spent the holiday season with my friend’s family. According to the local tradition, we would eat 12 grapes as the clock on TV would count the last 12 seconds leading up to the new year. It is believed that each grape brings good luck for each month of the year. This custom was born in Spain, but with time it also became popular in some countries of Latin America.
The biggest family celebration in Spain happens in January. On the 5th, people go outside to see the parade, which celebrates the arrival of the three kings. According to Christian tradition, there were three foreigners (Magi) who visited Jesus shortly after his birth. Each of the kings brought gifts to Jesus, hence the Spanish tradition of exchanging presents on Three Kings’ Day on January 6th.
Another custom related to this holiday is eating the Roscón de Reyes, a buttery bread topped with candied fruits and nuts. Similar to the Bulgarian tradition of having banitsa, in the roscón, there are hidden objects that you might get in your piece. Chewing on a ceramic Jesus figure will bring you luck for the new year. If you find a dried fava bean, it means you’ll have to pay for the roscón next year.
Safaris and G&T’s While Abroad at Christmas in Kenya
By Nadine from The Expat Mummy
In Kenya many of the Christmas traditions are a mimicry of a typical English or American Christmas Day.
Christianity has been in Kenya since Vasco de Gama landed in the 15th Century. We have Father Christmas (Santa Claus), present giving and feast making, it’s similar but not the same.
Christmas Day is celebrated with a barbeque usually goat, beef or sheep, eaten with rice and chapati. The term for this is Nyama Choma – which means burned meat. Each tribe prepares a special dish native to their tribe only. There is no Christmas cake but there is lots of homemade beer.
When Father Christmas arrives there are no reindeer or hint of snow, after all Christmas comes at the hottest time of year. Unlike most Christmas fairy tales where Santa arrives on a sled, Father Christmas makes his appearance in a Landrover, on a camel or a donkey. His presents may be as simple as a bottle of soda, bag of sweets or a new t-shirt.
In Nairobi, Father Christmas frequently arrives at the expats hang outs in a helicopter and disperses bottles of whisky along with his chocolates and crackers.
And rather than slumping on the couch watching TV after Christmas lunch, instruments will come out or music will be played and the dancing and drinking will go on late into the night. Many expats travel to the coast or go on safari for Christmas and as dusk falls you’ll find us on game drives, or swimming in the warm Indian Ocean, gin and tonic in hand
Big Shout Out
Thank you to all the bloggers who contributed to this post. I couldn’t have done it without you!
I thought Christmas in Penang was fun. But now, I am officially planning next Christmas in St. Kitts, or Denmark, or Portugal, or… who knows but I can’t wait to start planning!
It doesn’t matter if it’s your first expat Christmas or 7th, it comes with a roller coaster of emotions. And I’m a Jew. But there is something about creating new traditions to make your expat life even better and you are forced to do that when you move away from family.
How do you celebrate Christmas in a new country? What are your traditions? Tell me in the comments below.