For many people around the world, this will be the first Thanksgiving and/or Christmas or Hanukkah without a large gathering of family or friends. It might be hard, or it might seem weird or different, but I’m here to tell you that even nontraditional holidays can be special and hold memories.
With my husband’s job, we spend a good many holidays overseas away from family. We’ve spent 5 of the last 7 Thanksgivings and Christmases overseas. Some years we celebrate with friends, 2 years we’ve had family visit at Christmas, and some years we do something non traditional or just us!
Our first assignment was in New Delhi, India and we celebrated Thanksgiving just the 3 of us–me, DH, and 6 month old DD. We were new at post and didn’t know anyone particularly. I cooked a small meal, DD had her first tastes of several foods, including turkey, and we Facetimed family. Christmas was also just the three of us. And DD had a heavy cold, and it took us 3 days to get through presents as she kept napping! The following year we took a trip over Thanksgiving and while the hotel buffet was delicious, it was not Thanksgiving themed (not being in the US). Christmas though we lucked out with having my sister-in-law and brother-in-law visit us.
We then had 2 fairly normal Thanksgivings and Christmases as we were in the US and visited family/had family visit. Next assignment was Egypt. First Thanksgiving we went to a friend’s house–except DS (almost 2) was sick and so DH and I had to tag team. I went with DD to help set up and then ate, and then dashed home to let DH come and eat. For Christmas we had the morning just the four of us, and then hosted a few friends for dinner that afternoon.
The following year my cousins visited for Thanksgiving and the three of us went to Upper Egypt for a girls’ trip. DH and the kids went to a friends house for Thanksgiving. We timed it over the holidays so that DH wouldn’t have to take much time off work. It was a great trip and I was very thankful for my cousins AND the girl time. But it definitely wasn’t traditional! That Christmas we helped organize a potluck for families in our building in the common room. December in Egypt is relatively mild, so the kids were able to run around outside and play together. We also had my sister-in-law and brother-in-laws visiting again. Woo for family!
Last year was our first year in Ankara. For Thanksgiving we went to a friend’s house. Christmas was our family in the morning and then to a friend’s for Christmas dinner. This year we are hosting one family for Thanksgiving dinner and I imagine will do something similar for Christmas.
I hope I didn’t bore you with a list of what we’ve done each holiday. But I wanted to show that holidays can be nontraditional, big or small, and can still be fun and special. I have fond memories of all our holidays, whether we had a big meal or not, and regardless of how many people were there.
Some things we do or have done to help make the holidays special when far from family:
*Schedule video chats! Everyone is pretty used to these now, but you can coordinate meal times and set up a video chat so you’re eating at the same time “together.” You can also have kids unwrap presents from family members over video chats.
*Be flexible with video chat timing. If you see a lot of people on Christmas or Thanksgiving, you can’t possibly video chat with all of them on the holiday itself without getting sick of electronics! This is doubly hard when there is a time difference and therefore a smaller window of time that works for both sides. We always FaceTime my mom on Christmas Eve afternoon (morning for her). The kids open the presents from her and my stepdad and we chat and enjoy time “together.” This allows them to focus on her presents and her without being overwhelmed by All. The. Presents. or needing a quick chat before moving on to others. My inlaws we either chat with Christmas early evening or often the day after Christmas when things are calmer for everyone. I save their presents and kids open them then on chat.
*Have a special family recipe you and others always have. I grew up having Christmas Morning Coffee Cake every year for Christmas breakfast. We make it in a bundt cake pan and always eat it with stockings and either coffee or a mimosa. When I left the nest, I started making it. My sister-in-law makes it for my brother and his family. I love that every Christmas Eve Day, we can message each other about making the coffee cake and knowing that Christmas morning we’re all eating it (even though I eat it about 8 hours before they do!). On Thanksgiving, if we’re home, I always make stuffing using my mom’s recipe. But the coffee cake is the must. Pre-kids, DH and I went to my mother-in-law’s parents’ house for Christmas. Many different traditions, but I brought the recipe and make the coffee cake there so I could have it for breakfast! It helped me feel connected to my family and was fun to introduce to my in-laws. I think I’ve only not had it once in my memory-the year I taught in the Marshall Islands and had no access to ingredients or a stove (rural island, no electricity). Don’t have a family recipe? Start one!
*Have traditions you do each year that work regardless of who you’re with or how you can celebrate. A few years ago, I started a variation on the advent calendar I always had growing up (the ones with chocolate behind each window). Chocolate advent calendars are hard to find in predominately Muslim countries (where we’ve been the past 4 years). I got a calendar that instead is reusable with a little pocket for each day. I roll up a little note for each day that names a special activity, event, or treat. It might be as simple as getting a piece of Santa chocolate or something more complex like baking cookies or doing a craft. Years where we can do more events, I’ll put in visiting Santa or going to a party. No matter where we are or who we are with (or what Covid restrictions there are), we can use the Advent calendar as I can customize it to the current year. This year will be a lot of Christmas movies, crafts, and chocolate!
* Remember that the actual date is less important than the meaning of the holiday or event. Does Thanksgiving HAVE to be the 4th Thursday of November? Will the world implode if your kid’s birthday isn’t celebrated on the actual date? Will you be forever shamed if Christmas comes early or late or even in July? Of course not! Growing up, my dad was an airline pilot and often had to fly over holidays. So we’d celebrate early or late. Santa might come on Christmas, but other presents were opened when he was home. Meals or celebrations shifted. Now, we also adjust events based on what works for us, not what the calendar always says. My son’s birthday is in January. We do immediate family presents on his birthday. But his grandparents and aunts and uncles send him presents in July for his half birthday! This is for two reasons. One, his birthday is near Christmas and does he really need ALL the presents all over again so near? And then have to wait 11 months for more? Second, in July we have a much better chance of being with family–either because we are in the US visiting/moving, or family is visiting us over summer vacation (lots of teachers in the family). DD’s birthday is May and 2 years ago we were moving in June, so we celebrated her birthday in July with her brother’s half birthday. We were in the US and they ended up with two parties-one on my side and one on their dad’s side. They didn’t care one bit that it wasn’t their real birthdays.
I know that holidays away from friends and loved ones can suck. Especially when it’s not planned and it’s not what you wanted. But happy memories and good times can come even if it’s just your little household celebrating and you can still look back fondly on those celebrations.
I hope your holiday season is blessed and lovely despite all the craziness of this year!