Preparing for the Holiday Season as an Expat

As an Expat, this is the time of the year that I usually get a little depressed and “homesick”. Well, to be honest, a little more depressed and “homesick” than I seem to have become lately.  I’ll probably have to look into that a bit more…

Anyway, I blame this current bout of homesickness a bit on the “Remember when” stories that pop up on Social Media during the holidays. And since we stay in touch with our “Old Life” everything that our friends and family have planned for the end of the year are front and centre. We see our friends’ vacation plans on Facebook, get notified on WhatsApp and see their stories on Instagram. Beach rentals have been booked months ago, camping equipment has been cleaned and checked and everyone is getting ready for the 6 weeks that is a South African summer holiday.

On this side of the world, we are bombarded with holiday ads featuring families gathered around festive dinner tables piled high with family favorites. Not to mention the influx of holiday-themed movies showing even more families getting together or loved ones reconnecting.

And here we are living our “New Life”… With temperatures dropping we are saying goodbye to the last bits of summer. My kids will get a short school break around Thanksgiving and two more weeks of vacation in December. Most of us regular folks will be at our desks getting things done when most of our South African friends are relaxing on beach chairs.

It is difficult not to feel a bit sorry for ourselves and to give ourselves over to feelings of loneliness and bouts of depression.  But we really shouldn’t.  With a little careful planning, we too can not only survive the Holiday Season as Expats but thoroughly embrace and enjoy it!  Here is a list of things to consider.  They have worked for me in the past and I’m planning on doing all of them again this year to really have an enjoyable Holiday Season.

Decorate your House

Nothing lifts the spirits more than being surrounded by holiday decorations. It doesn’t have to be over the top or expensive. You can find some good options at BigLots, not to mention thrift stores or your local Goodwill store.  Pick up some Thanksgiving decorations and have fun with it.  Create your own ritual for decorating with your family or just take some time and do it by yourself.

Decorate for the Holidays

I’ll actually be unpacking my Christmas decorations one of these days and plan to keep myself busy for a while with getting the house decorated.  Throw in a glass of wine and some happy music and the Holiday Season will be off to a great start.  And don’t forget to take pictures!  Not just of the decorations, but of your family too!

Decorate for the Holidays

Attend Community Events

We are fortunate to be able to pick events from a number of “new” Old Towns around us. Santa is arriving early December at Duluth Town Green and it will be a great event as usual. The kids really enjoyed these when they were little, and so did we. Reindeer, free snow slides, hot drinks and plenty of music and entertainment.

Check your town’s event calendar and make an effort to go out and attend even if you don’t really feel up to it.  There really is something to be said for getting out of the house and joining other happy people.  I really believe happiness rubs off on you.

Attend Community Events

New Traditions

I find that we really shouldn’t try and recreate all the old traditions from our previous life. This is the perfect opportunity to create some brand new ones. South Africans do not celebrate Thanksgiving, but since moving here I find myself enjoying my own version of Thanksgiving. For me, it is a perfect opportunity to cook up a storm. I haven’t attempted a turkey before and since Pieter and the kids aren’t big fans of this Thanksgiving staple, I usually pop some chicken in the oven.

Part of my new holiday traditions is to sit down to lunch or dinner at a festively decorated table.  I like for it to feel special and not like a regular family meal.  Have fun with it and make your own place cards, grab items from the garden for a centerpiece and light some candles.

Even though my kids are teenagers now, they still enjoy things like carving Halloween pumpkins and decorating gingerbread houses.  Last year they decorated a couple of houses with their little nephews and this year they will be decorating it with boyfriends and girlfriends.  I might just get a house for myself too!

Create New Traditions

Host Friends for the Big Days

Through the years, we’ve been invited to Thanksgiving and Christmas lunches and dinners at our new friends and our family here. The best turkey I’ve ever had was definitely my friend Carmen’s creation a couple of years ago.  Then there was the year we were living in Rome, GA where we had two big holiday feasts just for our little family of four. Last year, we invited some friends (one was also an Expat) for Thanksgiving lunch and it turned out great.

Take some time and talk to the people around you. You might find a lonely neighbor or one of your new friends that are unable to visit their own far-away family. You can be the host and save someone else’s holiday. They would be very happy indeed to come over and try your South African version of the classic American holidays. And reaching out to someone else will make you forget a little about your family back in South Africa and all that they are up to without you.

Host Friends for the Holidays

Get Away (or at least out for a Day)

Ideally, we would love to be in South Africa during the Christmas Holidays.  But that is not always possible.  Another way to deal with the Holiday Season is to take a local vacation.  Or at the very least go away for a weekend or even just a day.  Since living in the United States, we’ve gone camping one Thanksgiving weekend and also spent one Christmas with other South African friends in Florida. 

Get Away for the Holidays

Last year we were fortunate enough to have my brother and his family visit us for the December holidays.  While they were here, we took a road trip to Orlando and another to Nashville, but most of our time was spent at home.  We live close to some really cool little towns and visiting them for a day was a great experience for all of us.  Top of that list must be Helen, GA which goes all out with their Christmas decorations. 

Another option would be to finally do some of those touristy things around town.  Last year we went to Medieval Times, saw an Ice Hockey game and spent a day at Snow Island at Lake Lanier, to name just a few.  Great fun for the family as well as visitors. 

Get Away for the Holidays

Make, Bake or Order a Taste from Home

Back in South Africa, Christmas dinners and lunches were planned around the summer weather.  I know we had a lot of holiday events that featured cold meats and salads.  Those dishes are not the best option for this time of the year where Christmas can be snowy and cold for a lot of us.

Nothing prevents you from inserting an item (or two) that will be familiar and provide comfort. For Thanksgiving, for example, our pumpkin element will not be a traditional pumpkin pie; it will be a South African favorite – deep-fried pumpkin fritters.  And instead of mashed potatoes, I like to make deep-fried ones.  Malva pudding is the ideal dessert during winter.  But there are other winter winners that you can make throughout the holiday season.  I’m thinking about potato and pea soup, bobotie and vetkoek, mini chicken pies and sausage rolls, oxtail potjie and lamb curry.  And don’t get me started on the dessert options: koeksisters, mini milktarts and lepelsteeltjies are my favorites.  Another good activity to get the kids involved in!

Make or Bake Holiday Treats

Not to worry if you are not a baker – you can order online from a large selection of South African bakers.  I like trying new recipes but I’ve been too busy before and had to order some treats.  Do your research and ask around – there could be a South African baker around the corner from you!

Give to a Neighbor or Friend

Another opportunity to bake or make and take to a friend or neighbor. It can be as small or as big as you would like it to be.  There are so many good options for quick and easy DIY gifts on Pinterest.  You will be surprised at what you can make if you have the right inspiration.  And we all know DIY projects are really good at taking your focus away from all those negative feelings.

This year I’ll be baking some gifts.  I’ll be making koeksisters and koffiekoekies and giving them to my colleagues, friends and neighbors.  So far, I haven’t met anyone who didn’t appreciate such a gesture.

Give Treats as Holiday Gifts

Say Thanks

At the end of the day take some time to reflect on how fortunate we are to be able to live here in the United States.  Isn’t that the true meaning of Thanksgiving?  Know that far away, over the ocean, a lot of South Africans are celebrating, sure, but a lot are also wishing they had this opportunity and your life.

Give Thanks for your New Life

How do you prepare for the Holiday Season as an Expat?

Don’t miss my other posts about moving to the United States.  You can start with My Top 5 Tips for Adjusting to Life in the States.

Garies Girl Holiday Version