Are you going home for Christmas? The longer we have lived away, the more complicated the ‘home’ question has become but, for my family, going home for Christmas means going back to parents’ house.
When I lived in England, the Christmas chat would be around where you were going to have Christmas dinner – and the tensions of in-laws and who was cooking what…all the usual Christmas stress. And here, the question is always – ‘Will you go home for Christmas?’.
Now clearly, given the fact that it’s already 16th December, I am way too late to offer my thoughts on staying vs going home. Plans will have been made, flights booked – or, if you’re staying, you’ll have already started to scour the shops for the nearest approximation of your favourite festive treats.
Going home for Christmas can be wonderful. It’s a chance to reconnect with family and friends, to take comfort in the familiar. But it can also be a lot of hard work – long haul flights, living out of a suitcase, frantically dashing around to see everyone. Worrying first of all about how to get gifts home for everyone…and then, on the return flight, about how to avoid paying for excess baggage because your kids have been given so many presents.
On the other hand, staying in your new country means that you can have a family Christmas in your own home and do things your way. But homesickness often kicks in at special times of the year if you can’t be with family. And trying to do a traditional Christmas dinner if you are in a country where turkeys are only found in the zoo can be difficult to say the least.
Before we moved we decided that we would always try to get home for Christmas, and we’ve been lucky in that we’ve managed this every year so far.
So, for me, Christmas is like some wonderful time warp. I have never spent Christmas anywhere other than at my parents’. So for thirty something (ahem) years I have woken up at my Mum and Dad’s. And the rituals have not changed. I realise that this might not be something to brag about – but my Mum still fills the same (slightly tatty) stocking with the same treats every Christmas Eve (tangerine, After Eight mints and a Chocolate Orange wedged in the top in case you wondered…which you probably didn’t…but for any Brits living outside the UK you’ll understand how much your mouth can water at the thought of cracking open a Terry’s chocolate orange when you can’t get hold of one for love nor money…).
Every Christmas morning we sit at the top of the stairs (writing this I’m realising that while the traditions don’t sound weird, I do…for still making sure I get my spot, wedged in between my daughters) and we wait for my Dad to check if ‘He’s been’. To which the answer is always ‘No’, and the kids rush off to check if the plate of treats they left out is empty (mince pie, carrot for Rudolph and a nip of Sherry for Father Christmas – as any expat knows, travelling round the world in time for Christmas is thirsty work) and then they scream in delight when they find their pile of gifts – which are always in the same place, but it wouldn’t be Christmas morning without a bit of added excitement.
Now I appreciate how lucky we are to be able to do this and, despite having had the opportunity to spend Christmas Day sipping cocktails on the beach, I wouldn’t miss it. For me this is one of our family traditions that helps give our children a sense of ‘home’. Never mind the fact that they never actually ever lived where my parents live, for me ‘home’ is about much more than a physical location. It’s family and friends and all the familiar routines. It’s about traditions – even if they are new traditions that you have worked out for your own family. It’s about feeling like you belong.
And when I squish my big old bottom on that top stair this year, that’s my Christmas wish come true. Being with the people I love. Seeing my children as they follow our traditions and make them their own. Watching my parents as they watch my girls on Christmas morning. Because it always makes me feel sad that they don’t see each other all the time, but I know the times they do spend together are special – and this is the real present.
However, before I get all sentimental, let’s be honest – whether you are staying or going, Christmas can sometimes feel like a bit of a slog. So I’ve put some some tips below…some are from experience, some are advice from friends. I hope they are useful, and would love to know if you have any tips of your own.
But above all else – above the packing, above the last minute present panic, above the ‘how am I going to survive a week at my in-laws’ worry – remember to take the time to enjoy being with the people you love.
The very fact that I can go home for Christmas – that I can cross those borders without a worry, that I have a home of my own and one where I am always welcome, that my concerns are around how I’ll fit the gifts in the car …I am so aware of how fortunate I am, and I am thankful for it.
Wherever you live, whatever you do over the holidays, I wish you lots of happiness.
Home for Christmas?…
Make it about presence, not presents
Expat or not, it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in Christmas present shopping stress. But when you only get a short period of time with family and friends – well, the biggest gift is just being with them, isn’t it?
In my experience, we’ve always come home with a whole heap more stuff than we went back with. Pack light, take extra bags if you can…because it’s not nice having to leave your children’s Christmas presents behind because you can’t fit them in your case. Or, more realistically, having to leave behind half of your clothes instead so that you can fit all the toys in…
Your sanity is important
Yes, you want your children to experience the magic of Christmas. Yes, you want to have a wonderful time and see everybody and make the most of being at home. But you can’t do everything, and if you spend the whole time you are at home racing all over the country seeing people, chances are you’ll end up more burned out than an Advent candle.
So focus on the things that are important to you and your family. If you have a lot of people to visit, perhaps arrange a place where you can be all day (erm…the pub?!) and let them know so that they can come to you.
Coming from the UK, I have to add that an important part of Christmas is watching the telly in your PJs with a big box of Quality Street – but doing this all together, and enjoying it.
Don’t throw all the routines out of the window
I’m not a very routine-y person, but I think, especially when you have younger children, maintaining some normality through routines is important. For me, this is usually around bedtimes…because no-one is happy if the kids aren’t sleeping, and this is ramped up about a million times if you’re staying at someone else’s house. And your kids are jet-lagged. Eurgh.
But when everything you are doing is ‘special’, a little bit of the normal, boring routine is a good thing – even if it’s just bath and bed, or having the same breakfast every day.
Enjoy your traditions
Rituals and traditions are especially important at this time of year, and really help children have a sense of belonging. I adore hearing about my friends’ different traditions, and I love hearing my girls talk with excitement about all the things they know are going to happen around Christmas time.
I also think it’s a good idea to make your own traditions as a family. Here is a great article form The Washington Post about what children need at Christmas time. I think the idea of making time for story telling and sharing memories at Christmas is wonderful – because stories connect us, and they can help children understand their family values.
If you’re staying…
Make it about presence, not presents
Yep, same thing. I think it can be easy to over-compensate for not being at home by spending lots of money of gifts – but you know what the best present is…
So you may be a long way from your family. But the likelihood is there will be a lot of other expats who are also staying for Christmas. Treat these people like your family away from home – invite them, share your traditions and use this as a time to strengthen your friendships.
Make new traditions
Ok, so this will be forced sometimes – if you live in a country where Christmas isn’t celebrated, getting hold of a tree and christmas crackers isn’t going to be easy! But you can make new family traditions – a Christmas morning swim, for example. Or if you live in a country where Christmas is celebrated, adopt some of their traditions. Mix things up and make them your own.
We buy Christmas tree ornaments from the places we visit…luckily I do not have decorating OCD. Our tree is an un-colour co-ordinated mish mash of traditional German decorations, Thai elephants and tuk-tuks alongside Union Jack hearts and a London bus. Oh, and a Freida Kahlo decoration for good measure…
A bit of planning goes a long way
Ok so this advice comes a bit late, but if you know what things aren’t available to you in your country, some advance planning can work wonders. Our first year in Bangkok I couldn’t get hold of mincemeat to make mince pies (to non British readers – these are made of fruit, not meat!) so I made sure I stocked up and brought some back for the following year. Luckily it doesn’t go off…