Expat advice: When you’re not home for the holidays

expat holidays away from home

I’m not gonna lie. In some respects, living abroad during the holidays is great. Here in Madrid, lights and trees and decorations are already up all over the city. Thanks to Amazon Prime, my U.S. gift shopping stress doesn’t even register. I may not get to spend all the special days with my besties or family, but if needed, I can distract myself with a 35€ flight to Toulouse or quick train to Sevilla.

But then, I start thinking about this Thursday. It’s Thanksgiving in the U.S. but just a regular day here in Spain. Regular to the point that I’ll be getting a cavity filled at 10:50 am. Regular to the point that I’ll be smooshed in the metro with the other regular-day commuters, thinking of all the roasting turkeys and toasts happening in the U.S.

When you live abroad, there’s a good chance you’ll celebrate solo a time or two. It’s not always possible or practical to get home. But celebrating holidays away from family can wear on even the steadiest heart. There’s a unique loneliness that slinks in no matter how accustomed you are to being away from home. So, what’s an expat to do?

Since we’re looking the holiday season in the face, I say it’s time to get proactive. I’m a girl that loves a plan. I swear, seven out of ten things that plague my inner being can be solved with a decent list. If you know you won’t be with family this year and already feel the tickle of bleak desolation on the fringes of your heart, it’s time to get going! Don’t wait until you’re in the depths of despair with a bottle of tequila on Christmas Eve.

Keep reading for five ways I avoid the lonely that can creep in around the holiday season.

Keep old traditions

If you’re living somewhere that doesn’t celebrate your holiday, seek out other expats. No other country celebrates Thanksgiving but there are Americans in practically every other country! We’ve always found a way to celebrate with a mix of people and there’s something about wanting to recreate a similar tradition that makes people outgoing and welcoming. Another thing is to extend invitations to local friends. Depending on where you’re living, people may be curious about your culture and how you celebrate. At the least, make Facebook’s expat groups your best friend. Many organize or advertise get-togethers for every flavor of holiday.

Make new traditions

After living two holiday seasons in Colombia, I’ll forever light candles on Día de las Velitas and wear yellow underpants on New Year’s Eve (actually, I’m not going to confirm this). The same holidays can be wildly different depending on where you’re celebrating. So maybe you don’t have an oven big enough for a Christmas ham (or you can’t even find a ham). See what everyone else does to celebrate and implement a thing or two into your own traditions. This is a great way to feel more at home in your new home, too.


Serving others is an incredible thing for lots of reasons. It’s a perfect representation of giving spirit of the holiday season. It allows you to feel a part of something bigger. And though it isn’t the most benevolent reason for volunteering, you can’t deny the power it has to switch your focus from inwardly facing to outward. If you don’t already know local expat organizations, do a quick google search since many have fundraisers or similar events during holiday seasons.

Don’t abandon your health!

Besides the yuck of loneliness, there are lots of other things during the holiday season that are just waiting to derail your emotional well-being. Things like extra work, extra treats, shorter days, and dreary weather. Remember, your body craves a steady state. If your routine is to exercise or journal or eat a certain way, keep at it. By all means, indulge, but also keep an eye on how you’re taking care of yourself.

Take it easy on social media

Oh, how I love and hate technology all at once. Definitely, absolutely keep in touch with your loved ones during the holidays. But, make sure you check yourself before hopping on Instagram. If you know that seeing everyone back home at the annual ugly-sweater party is going to make you weepy like the last episode of Downtown Abby, set your phone down and do something else. And before you start feeling lame because you’re decorating a palm tree, remember that social media is the highlight reel of life. Don’t compare yourself to other people and build up their lives more than you know is accurate. I’m sure they forgive you for posting your palm trees during the other 364 days of the year.


Even with this advice, nothing can take the place of friends and family at the holidays. I’d love to hear how you’ve adapted to celebrating solo in your new home or what you look forward to, even while twelve time zones away from your loved ones. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

6 thoughts on “Expat advice: When you’re not home for the holidays

  1. Danielle, I so appreciate this! We always move to a new (read: far away from family) location right at the start of the holiday season, and it seems to make the transition that much harder. Today we’re going to an American expat Thanksgiving potluck, but tomorrow I’m going to try my hardest to get out of the house and out of range of cell service to keep my mind off of the festivities happening at home. I noticed that “run away from your problems” was not on the above list of suggestions (ahem, probably a smart idea), but at this stage in my expat journey it’s all I feel capable of doing right now.

    BUT! I will be keeping this list close at hand over the next month. I know your experience and encouragement will help as Christmas approaches.

    Happy Thanksgiving! Best of luck with the dental procedure.

    1. Hello, Erin! Oh, that would absolutely make things difficult. I agree with what you said about running away, sometimes it’s the only way to deal. In a way, I think my advice boils down to keeping yourself distracted, aka grown-up running away ;-) My heart is with you this holiday season and I hope we keep in touch as you settle down in England. I’m here if you need a sympathetic ear and Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

  2. I love that you always have a plan and a
    check off list to execute it. Proactive beats reactive every time. It is comforting for the family to know how important these traditions are to the expat (our kids). We too have to deal with the emptiness. Keeping the ❤️ THANKFUL is first on our list………truly easy to do with such exceptional loved ones. HAPPY THANKSGIVING in Spain

    1. Haha, you know me and my plans and lists! As much as I love them, of course, there’s nothing that can take the place of fam around the holidays :-) We’ll be missing you guys tomorrow and are so thankful that we get to see you in a few months. xo and Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. Such good tips, Danielle! I just wrote about something similar, how we can brighten the holiday season for those who live far away. My main tip was to keep it simple. Reconnecting with loved ones can be as simple as a FB message or email and sometimes little things like that make all the difference. As the one who moved away, I get so much joy out of making an effort for those back home. I’ll be writing some Christmas cards this weekend and enjoying every minute. ;-)

    1. Thank you, Diane! I totally agree with keeping it simple—it’s the little things that make a difference and also are the most sustainable in the long run. I hope you have a lovely holiday season!!

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