Surviving the Holidays Elsewhere

"Members of the "Laughter Yoga" club participate in an event called "Christmas Smile" near the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Dec. 23, 2012. (Xinhua/Ho Nhu Y)

“Members of the “Laughter Yoga” club participate in an event called “Christmas Smile” near the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Dec. 23, 2012. (Xinhua/Ho Nhu Y)

If you’ve spent a Christmas or New Year in a different country, especially a non-European, not dominantly Christian country, you may have found it disconcerting. There may be little more deeply embedded in our psyches as traditional as “The Holidays”. That is for better or for worse. The sounds of a carol, the images of snow and Santas, the smells of pine and cranberry, all bombard us with emotions. In the 21st century, these images are almost inescapable. Experiencing these cues in a small town in Asia or Africa intensify the sense of displacement and alienation. This is a time full of emotional land mines.

I’ve spent almost all of the last 14 Christmases outside of the US, mostly in Asia or the Middle East, in Muslim and Buddhist countries. While it can feel lonesome at times – I swear there is nothing like a snow rendition of Jingle Bells to bring on waves of sad nostalgia – I’ve found the local interpretations of our most important holidays to be quite amusing.

Here is some advice for the holidays abroad:

Christmas-Symbols Adjust your expectations. It won’t be the same as at home. Let go of your attachment to the usual trappings, such as mistletoe and turkey, or ham. You won’t get a live evergreen tree. As an expat one of the best ways to settle in well is to accept that things are different, so learn to love the local. Every place I’ve been for Christmas has adapted some aspects of our holidays.

Philippino choir sings carols in a hotel in Bahrain Video Joanne Bretzer

Christmas-Symbols Improvise. Decorate that palm tree! Light up the cactus! Convert some of your recipes. Sage dressing in a stuffed lamb roast? Excellent! Pomegranate seeds sprinkled on a mango or orange salad? Great! With imagination and squinced eyes, your table may actually look downright Norman Rockwell perfect. Honestly, the food will probably taste better.

Christmas-Symbols Go against the grain, or even the law. If Christmas for you must include some of the “sacred” elements, then bring your own, or be vigilant in search of the real stuff, which may be quite well hidden.

I spent a couple of Christmases in Saudi Arabia. My neighbor was insistent on a tree. Imagine her thrill when we were in a mall, in a small store on the top floor, and a seller loudly whispered to her, “over here,” and he pointed to under the counter where he had contraband plastic trees, and cards! and decorations! The excitement of the holidays that year was the frisson of trangressiveness involved in lighting the tree. Our other neighbor was forced to take her front window tree down. We lived on an expat compound. Don’t try this in a mixed local neighborhood. The religious police take a dim view of Christmas lights.

Christmas-Symbols Accept that this may be a sensitive time, and see where your emotions take you. Yes, be aware and tune into that sadness and nostalgia. Spend a few tears and bid your old life adieu. You may find that this frees you to embrace the joys of your new country. The celebration of Tet, lunar new year, in Vietnam brings families all over the country back together for a week of feasting and spiritual celebration. Eids, the tradition celebrations of Muslim countries do likewise. Tuning into these celebrations will bring you closer to the local culture.

Holidays away from home remind us of those dear to us, and that can be celebrated anywhere in the 21st century, with social media, Skype and the telephone. If all else fails, throw yourself into that other Christmas classic – holiday travel; crammed airports, storm-delayed flights, busses and traffic.


Storm: Traffic edges its way through York in a pre-Christmas snowstorm as Britain suffered the coldest December since records began.

Christmas at O'Hare Photo Joanne Bretzer

Christmas at O’Hare Photo Joanne Bretzer



19 thoughts on “Surviving the Holidays Elsewhere

  1. Great tips. I love the energy with which they are singing Jingle Bells. Thanks for sharing this with us, Joanne 🙂

    Have a great weekend 🙂

    Love and light ❤

    Anand 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. It is certainly the time for something festive, especially for us expats.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. I was looking at your horoscope again, out of curiosity. Did you choose to be outside native country or circumstances forced you, especially at this age?


      • I have quite chosen, and happily. When I go back to the US, I am confirmed in my decision. It is a difficult place at the moment, to say the least.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I understand. Though I don’t mean it in disparaging way, because I have the similar Karma in my birth chart. I see that you might have had an aversion to your family of birth, relatives and your own culture growing up. I might be wrong but that is what I glean both from your birth chart and your articles. I also see clear indication of your being a versatile artist and a published author, so I think your birth details are accurate 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. I would rather say I have struggles with my family, but I’m quite attached to my daughter and grandsons, and my ex-son-in-law and my some-day to be son-in-law. I am an author of the published sort, and modestly artistic. Life is always very complicated, no?

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, it is. So my readings are indeed going in the right direction. You will get what they call “final liberation” in hinduism and buddhism. If you don’t believe in that, I should say you will feel highest bliss and peace while living in this body itself 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. […] and put those up.  Hell, light up a cactus if you can’t get hold of an original pine tree or use these tips from Joanne to make the best of wherever you […]

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That Phillipino choir had a good beat going with their rendition of Jingle Bells. Hard to imagine that Christmas trees are illegal in some countries. That sounds like a very different experience of the holidays. Enjoy the holidays, wherever you are this year. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Watch Joanne’s video of a Fillipino choir group singing Christmas carols in a Bahrain hotel. […]


  5. I had no idea that celebrations might be illegal in some places! Shocking…And very interesting…


  6. I was able to spend Christmas in Arabia in 2011 and was presently surprised by how many signs of Christmas were there. Wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s