The festive season is usually a period set aside for spending time with close friends and family at home. However, many people – especially students and young professionals – are faced with the prospect of spending their favourite part of the year in new surroundings with new people.
Your authors have both found themselves in this slightly daunting situation: Sam living in Israel, Maddy in China. Christmas is not as widely celebrated in either of these countries as in the UK, and we both had classes to attend on the 24th and 25th of December. Despite our initial fears, Christmas turned out to be a memorable part of living abroad, surrounded by close friends that we had made during the time in our new homes. With the holidays soon coming up, here are some tips to get through your first Christmas away from home:
Decorate and explore:
M – I was living with two British students in a flat in Beijing, so Christmas is a big event on all our calendars! As soon as it turned December 1st we set off on an excursion to buy Christmas decorations. We spent that whole afternoon decorating our small Beijing flat while playing Christmas music. The festive spirit was in the air from day one despite the fact that Christmas is not an official holiday in China.
S –Getting in the Christmas spirit is really important – my mum actually sent me a load of decorations to put up in my apartment. As a primarily Jewish country, Israel doesn’t really celebrate Christmas however, living in Jerusalem with its Christian Quarter and Bethlehem around the corner, I wasn’t exactly cut off from the holiday. Experiencing the Arab Christian version was really cool; people celebrate differently all over the world, so why not try the local way too?
Food & Beverages:
M- We went all around the city to find the right food for our Christmas dinner. Because most Beijing flats do not have an oven, we ordered a cooked turkey. We also went to our nearest Western supermarket to buy specific ingredients otherwise unavailable, such as cheese. Even though we had a very small kitchen to work with, we took turns assigning different roles to make our Christmas dinner. This effort was really worth it in the end as we had a delicious meal that made us feel more at home.
S – I also got a big group of people together to have a Christmas dinner, which is definitely a good way to spend the actual day and take your mind off missing mum’s cooking at home.
M- Make sure you spend this day surrounded by close friends! I spent my Christmas with 13 friends, all whom I had not known just 3 months earlier. We ate, drank, exchanged gifts, played games and watched movies. These people now feel like family, and we’ll forever share this and other special memories.
S – Inviting new friends round for dinner was another fruitful idea, many of them were Jewish and didn’t usually celebrate Christmas, so that was cool to share with them. The combination of the different setting and new company was actually really fun.
Don’t forget your loved ones at home:
M- I scheduled a Skype session with my family on Christmas day, during which we opened the small gifts we had sent each other. I still felt their presence despite the distance.
S – We’re blessed with being able to share Christmas experiences together from across the world, and with Skype I also contacted the family while they were together on the day. I kept it short though because I was pretty busy putting my own Christmas day together for the first time – ultimately it’s best to do whatever suits you.
When living in a new place with a different culture, you can try out and celebrate different festivals. Around the same period in Israel Hanukkah was celebrated which Sam joined in with friends. Chinese New Year is China’s biggest holiday, which usually takes place just a month after Christmas. So do not worry that you are missing out, usually when abroad you make it up in other, more exciting ways.
If you are struggling during the holiday season while abroad, be sure to check out the FCO’s advice on how to best cope with mental health issues: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mental-health
By Maddy Gonzalez and Sam Nightingale Bartlett.