‘Home’ for the holidays: How expats make memories abroad

man and woman waving on screen in festive clothing

It’s been an absurd year.

Even the mention of the word ‘pivot’ or ‘unprecedented’ sends a shiver up my spine, as those of us living in Australia continue to be bombarded with ads and messaging lamenting the year-gone-past. But while much of the country returns to business as usual, filling our social calendars with Christmas to counter the COVID ennui, there are some of us expats who continue to feel the impact of the pandemic.

Our family and loved ones are abroad and, depending on the country of residence, are still in danger. It is not all that unusual to spend the holidays abroad but after a year like this, it’s time to make this one special.

I am coming into my fourth year living in Australia as a Canadian abroad and, like many expats, have spent my share of summers beachside for Chrissy. What I have learned during my time abroad is how important the holidays can be, not only to unwind but to celebrate with those you love the most.

Here are my five tips for keeping things merry and bright.

1. Celebrate your holiday traditions wherever you are

One of my favourite Aussie Christmas memories was when my partner’s Mum tracked down and decorated a real Christmas tree because she knew it was part of my holiday tradition. Since then, I’ve been incorporating elements from my family Christmas into my Aussie one.

It’s also extra special when your loved ones make the effort to bring some tradition to you. My Mum is the biggest Christmas enthusiast I know and, this year, has individually wrapped each present in festive paper labelling each gift from mysterious senders that give clues to what’s inside. To Erin, from the Office. To Erin, from the Kitchen Sink. She has been doing this since my sister and I were children and it’s something I cannot help but incorporate into my own gift-giving ritual.

The fine work of the author’s Mum

Incorporating traditions is also a wonderful way to stay connected with your family abroad and to show how much they mean to you. I have bombarded my family with photos of my lasagne attempts, but sharing the cooking experience has always spurred on meaningful stories, past and present. Sharing food is synonymous with the holidays and is a constant in families’ households across the globe.

So go for gold, bake grandma’s Christmas quiche, hang your stockings by a makeshift fire, cook turkey dinner for your in-laws… The holidays are only a few days out of the year, it’s what you do with them that makes them noteworthy.

2. Connect remotely but make it special

It’s not a surprise that connecting with family using the magic of technology would make this list, but I wanted to add one essential caveat – set-up that Zoom meeting but incorporate an activity.

I think we’ve all been on those family calls where your aunties/uncles/sisters/brothers are all talking over each other while you’re dad munches on a pre-dinner snack all too close to the microphone. Connecting remotely is wonderful in theory, but when you factor in the varying levels of computer savoire-faire, it’s difficult to guarantee a meaningful result.

My suggestion is to tag an activity onto your virtual catch-up. Watch a holiday movie, make a Christmas-y cocktail or play your favourite board game remotely. These moments together are too special to miss and when you can bond over a shared experience, it’s easier to keep the chatter flowing naturally.

Connecting remotely takes time, consideration and, most importantly, organisation. Value your time with those you love the most.

3.Bring your family along for the ride

I have to give full rights to my Mum and sister for this one and admittedly, this will sound a bit bizarre.

My first Christmas away from home my family printed a realistically proportionate photograph of my face, perched her on a chair and dressed her in my clothes to sit at the table for Christmas dinner. Flat Erin graced the festivus through her pesky insistence on peeking at presents behind the tree, taking a post-Christmas lunch nap and, as the evening escalated, even dipping into the wine. My family had so much fun dressing up flat Erin into a variety a festive photo-ops that they sent me flat versions of themselves so I wouldn’t have to have Christmas without them.

While it may sound absurd to suggest printing life-sized versions of your family members and arranging them in various positions around your home for photos, I cannot recommend this enough.

Not only are the photo-op possibilities hilarious but it is actually quite comforting to be joined by the grinning faces of your long-distance family and friends. It also circles back on what I mentioned about tradition. Taking part in familiar and commonly shared activities draws you closer and – live a little – it’s just fun!

4. Surprise and delight

There is something that has to be said for the thrill of experiencing the unexpected, and even more-so as an adult, when the magic of the holidays can feel not-so-magical.

Beyond the gift giving and getting, the holidays should be a time to take pause and think about how you can surprise and delight your friends and family. Cloaked by the kilometres between you, there is no need to sneak around when you are planning something special for a loved one. Maybe they weren’t expecting to receive anything from you this year? Maybe you gift them a night to themselves? Maybe it’s just a simple phone call or letter?

While it’s certainly possible to plan little surprises throughout the year, I love taking the Christmas holidays as an opportunity to ponder on how I can make their day that much better.

5. Consistency is key

So you’ve treated your people right? Showed them love, gifted them the unexpected, put in the quality time. Tick, you’re done – but not so fast…

The hardest part about keeping in touch when abroad is keeping that consistency of communication. While the holidays are an excellent opportunity to reflect on those you love, the best gift you can give are updates and meaningful conversations all-year-round ­⁠– and it’s difficult, believe me.

Schedules get busy, lives go in different directions and sometimes it just feels too hard to calculate the time-difference and schedule-in calls around day-to-day life. But the most important gift you can give your family is to stay connected, consistently.

Pick a day of the week and put aside two hours to catch up with your family and friends. While the holidays are a great reminder to celebrate the people who built you up to be the person you are today, you owe it to them to be there for them, no matter what country you live in.

Happy holidays! Stay safe out there.

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