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Celebrating Special Holidays Abroad

Annual Decorating of a Gingerbread House

Wendy McArthur | @wendy_mcarthur
December 20,  2019

For many educators around the world, being away from your loved ones during important holidays can be difficult. No matter your religion or culture, leaving these holidays and traditions behind to pursue a career overseas can be challenging. As international educators, we knowingly and willingly leave behind these holidays and traditions when we accept a position at an international school. While our choice to live away from our family and home country is intentional, it does not necessarily make it any easier to manage when special family, religious, or national holidays come around.    

Build a Family Abroad

Holidays are often very special to us because of the people we spend them with. I love returning home for Christmas every year because I know I will spend time with my parents and my siblings. My time with them is always special in very different ways, but when I am there, I feel at home, content, and loved. We have holiday traditions that warm my heart, and it’s generally a time of year when all of us manage to put our differences aside and genuinely enjoy one another’s company. When you are living abroad, you have to create your own family by developing strong friendship groups that can happily fill the void of not being with your loved ones on important dates. I have formed a solid group of international and host country friends that are like my siblings and aunts and uncles to my daughter. I have a whole new set of nieces and nephews, and so for me, Christmas isn’t any less expensive, no matter where I am! My international Friend-Family had provided much love, support, and guidance over the years, in the absence of my own family.  I recently married, and a number of my international Friend-Family members took the time to fly to Oregon to be with us at the wedding. So you see the bonds of what I like to call my Friend-Family can be just as strong as those of your natural family.

Canada Day with our Friend Family

The longer you live internationally, the more likely it is that there will be years when you can’t get home for special days. Before I became a mother, traveling around the world during the holidays were always a little easier since I loved vacations on the beach.  I was willing to sacrifice some holidays with family to travel and experience new cultures and see new places. Once I became a parent, I felt it was essential to provide my daughter with traditions and experiences that would help her connect to our home culture and family traditions. So this changed my frequency in returning home for the holidays. For many years, I returned to Canada for Christmas so that my daughter, Ainsley, could be immersed in our family traditions. Returning home also gave her time with cousins and grandparents to go ice skating, tobogganing (sledding), and experience the incredible feeling when one gets when snowfalls. Our annual return for the Christmas holidays soon became one of Ainsley’s favorite trips, and she looked forward to our return to Canada every December. However, being a school administrator did not always lend itself to returning for Christmas. 

Ainsley, and I needed to have traditions that would make our time in our host country as special as our time during the holidays when we were home. Over the years, our host country traditions became as crucial as our Canadian traditions, and soon we would squeeze everything into one year; you can imagine how busy those years were! Ainsley and I had an annual baking day with one of her good friends, and the girls made the same treats every year. We also held an annual Secret Santa exchange with our Friend Family, which was always so much fun for kids and adults alike! 

Christmas is not the only special day for our family, and every year on July 1st, we celebrate Canada Day. Ainsley and I enjoyed having friends over to our home in Panama and celebrate Canada by sharing some poutine (french fries covered with cheese and gravy), play some famous Canadian music, and celebrate all things Canadian! So no matter what your special day is, what time of year it is, be sure to take the time to plan out some special activities for yourself and your family so that you will feel as happy in your host country as you were in your home country.

Experience a New Holiday Celebration

If your host country celebrates some of the same special days that you and your family celebrate, you can consider taking up some of the local traditions and participating in fun activities with members of your host country community. What is a better way there to experience the culture first hand than to spend it with a host country family? When I lived in Mexico, a couple of foreign teachers tried to learn how to make Tamales, and many participated in the annual Posada. 

Canadian Thanksgiving in Panama

When I lived in Serbia, I did not celebrate Slavas (Saint Days), but I had several Serbian friends that were very excited and honored to share their family homes and traditions with a foreigner. One good friend invited me to a Slava dinner at her house, and it was fabulous. She made all the traditional foods that she grew up with, and there were members of her Serbian family present, so the room was filled with English and Serbian conversation that added to the richness of the experience. I remember how delicious the food was, and so I happily filled my plate with the deliciousness that covered the table. Serbians love to feed you, and in this particular case, I was thrilled to oblige. When I finished my plate, I complimented the chef and told her what a fantastic meal it was but was shocked to find out that it was only the first course, and three more courses were coming! 

You can imagine how tough the next three courses were for me; I did not want to offend my gracious hosts, but I was so full, there was no way I was going to get through one more course, let alone two more! So what did I learn? Gather as much cultural intel as possible before attending a host-country family event. I could have avoided the stress I felt about insulting my guest, had I gathered just a little more information. 

Despite my cultural mishap, my time at the Medenica household was fabulous. I learned so much about Slavas, the food, and I felt like a part of an extraordinary family holiday even though Slavas are not a part of my own religious or ethnic background. 

Holiday Hiatus

If you are comfortable having some downtime and enjoy your own company, you can also consider taking a hiatus during the holidays. Take a vacation by yourself, and find time to truly rest and recover before it begins to get busy all over again! I once read an article that said that everyone should try taking a vacation by themselves. So one year, I decided that I was going to attempt a beach holiday by myself over the Christmas vacation. I would recommend that if you are going to do this, you ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Am I REALLY comfortable traveling alone?
  2. Is this the right holiday to be traveling alone?
  3. Is there a backup plan if I dislike this experience?

At the time that I had decided to take on this challenge, I had not taken the time to ask myself these questions, and while I probably would have answered yes to question (a), I doubt I would have answered yes to question (b). I chose to travel over the Christmas holidays, and this, as I already mentioned, is my most favorite family holiday. I went to Mexico, and I had a lovely time on the beach but really, what was I thinking? I missed having my family around me on Christmas morning. Christmas dinner with my new vacation friends was nice, but it just was not the same, and nothing about that vacation felt special. So, would I vacation alone on holiday? Yes, but likely I would choose another vacation time that is not quite so special to me! Vacationing alone was not so bad, but the time of year was not so great, so be sure to consider that. 

Question (c) is always a good idea when trying something like vacationing alone for the first time. I am glad that I tried it, but if I could have hopped on a plane and returned home, I probably would have done it. It’s always good to consider a backup plan when trying something new for the first time! 

Decorating the Christmas Tree in T-shirt and Shorts

Connecting Through Technology

Virtual holidays are also a possibility now and make having to be away from home on our special days! I remember when I first moved overseas, and we all thought email had revolutionized living away from home! We were all in touch with our families regularly and did not have to wait for weeks for letters to arrive or be delivered. I am not sure which video chat came first, but I recall Skype being the one that was a deal changer for my mom! She just loved being able to call and speak to us and be able to see her granddaughter. 

Technology has revolutionized life for international educators, and I have even attended two weddings virtually since living overseas, and I was also a guest speaker at one. I have a photo of myself on the big screen at the wedding since I was unable to attend my sister’s wedding because it was Orientation Week, and I could not leave the school in the middle of such a crucial time. If you are unable to return home for the holidays, remember to take advantage of the technology that is at our fingertips. Have scheduled calls with the ones that you love so you can be sure not to miss them and have someone bring you into the room during special family events. Sure, it’s not like sitting in the room, but you will have the opportunity to enjoy and engage with the people that you love.

Halloween in the Tropics

No matter when your special family/country holiday is, be sure you have considered what will make you happy if you are unable to return to your family or home country! Plan ahead, bring together new and old friends to celebrate with you, and to help you create new traditions and memories. I never imagined that Christmas in the tropics could be Christmas for this Canadian girl, but I have spent a few Christmases under the palm trees, in the sand, with great food and great friends where we created memories that I now carry with me always.  

Wendy is an experienced, passionate educator with a great sense of humor! Wendy has a Bachelor’s degree in History and Education and has a Master’s Degree in Education. Wendy has twenty years of experience in international school leadership and over twenty-seven years of experience in education; she has worked in international schools in Mexico, Serbia, and Panama. In 2005, Wendy was recognized for her dedication and commitment as a school leader when she was the recipient of the National Distinguished Principal’s awarded for the Office of Overseas Schools. Wendy is well versed in the International Baccalaureate program, American curricula, and school accreditation processes. Wendy is known throughout the international community as a leader and a presenter, presenting at conferences in the United States and regional international school conferences. Wendy believes that schools should be led with laughter and empathy if they are to transform into places where great learning takes place.


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