Friday Five: Holidays as an Expat/immigrant Edition

Linking up once again with Meranda and Lacey over at Fairytales and Fitness for the Friday Linkup!  Check out their blog and others who have dropped their link there.  Want to participate?  Feel Free!  Just don’t forget to visit the other blogs in the linkup and leave a comment! It’s the Christmas Spirit thing to do!

Fairytales and Fitness



As Christmas approaches, I wanted to share a little bit about what it’s like to be away from my birth country this time of year, especially when the internet makes it so easy for me to stay connected to that birth country.



1. Holidays are not the same in my adopted country.   Not “better” and not “worse”, just different.  It took me a long time to let go of what the holiday “should” look like.  There is rarely snow here, there are no drives through the neighborhood to look at lights, there are no luminarias and no one is really as EXCITED about Christmas as people are in my birth country.  There is no traditional meal like at home – I suppose there is one, but I’m not aware of anything besides gourmetten; in our case, a lot of times it was (new) mexican food – and believe me you can try to replicate this but you won’t get the same response as you would in your birth country (my kingdom for tamales, my mom’s special burritos she always made for my grandpa and posole).  Fun fact:   I made posole one year, as in literally cooking all day long to make my Dutch family something special and, let’s just say it didn’t go over well at all.  The kids were too young, it was “weird” and while the hubs liked it I’m sure it wasn’t his favorite meal ever.

luminarias – also known as farolitos in Northern New Mexico


Gourmetten – basically grill your own food at the table



posole rojo – my left arm for a bowl of this magic



2. Since making friends is not super easy here (my friends over the years have also been expats, not so much natives, but not for lack of trying), you really don’t get invited for parties or get togethers. In fact, this time of year is pretty much reserved for family or the closest friends you have.  As an introverted extrovert it’s fine to not get invited everywhere but on the other hand it kind of sucks and feels pretty lonely.   I have the best partner of life in my husband and am not alone by any means (and he really does his best this time of year!) but I’m lonely.  The picture-perfect scenes of loved ones coming together to celebrate life, hope and love are not part of my holiday.   For this reason I also avoid holiday movies, with the exception of Christmas Vacation.


3. Ron’s family is here, yes, but either they don’t really “do” Christmas with extended family or we don’t get invited.  This year, middle brother Chris asked us if we wanted to come over on 2nd Christmas Day, so, hey! that’s something.   In most cases of the expat/immigrant you either go “home” for the holidays or you spend the holidays with your partner’s family and that reminds you of how much you would rather be with your own (even when they make you crazy after a few days).

OK, it’s not THAT bad, but sometimes…


4. I don’t have my own biological children (which is FINE, but then the only person I have to convince of MY traditions is my partner).  My stepchildren are Dutch and have their own holiday ideas and ideals instilled in them from their dutch family.   In the Netherlands Christmas was extremely low-key when I first moved here twenty-four years ago and Sinterklaas (dec 5th “pakjesavond”) was the thing (and still is, but it’s kind of a controversy – don’t get me started…);   I tried incredibly hard to get them to believe in Santa (I was told he was NOT real, only Sinterklaas was real…) and they did for a little while (yay!), we made cookies on Christmas eve, listened to Christmas music and when they would go to bed, Ron and I would put everything under the tree.   That worked for a while.  But there was still the feeling that *I* was the only one who really wanted all of that happening and I became sad and frustrated so I gave up.   Last year I decided at the last minute I wanted my tree up (I think it was the 23rd!) and this year I was fully prepared to do absolutely nothing.  Suddenly The Girl asked a few weeks ago if we were going to have dinner together on Christmas Eve (that was the “tradition” I was trying to give them) and last Friday Ron suggested we get a tiny living tree from the Garden Center to have at home.   Conclusion:  Giving up hope isn’t necessary for your own traditions in your new country but man, you  need a LOT of mental and emotional stamina for this.   (I won’t tell you about all the years of stress trying to actually have the kids over for Christmas Eve if it didn’t fall on “our” weekend)

santa v. the Sint – who wins?


5. We don’t do presents at all anymore.  We used to, but it was extremely stressful.   I’m mostly ok with this.  Like 90%!  There is 10% of me that misses finding something amazing for my husband, step-daughter or step-son, then wrapping it up and seeing them open it later.  I’m super confused about my feelings in this!  On the one hand i know you should not give to receive.  On the other, I just don’t understand why it’s so hard to do/make or buy something for your immediate family.  And it doesn’t even have to be a present for me.  What hurts me most is that my husband doesn’t receive anything from his kids.  #thereIsaidit  I don’t know if this a Dutch thing or what, but I see Dutch people, young and old, shopping for Christmas presents so …   Anyway, Ron and I generally don’t do presents for each other because we give all year to each other!  We are much more into experiences than things and if I truly need something I’ll get it for myself OR if I can’t afford it at that time, Ron will buy it for me.   This is our choice but it’s hard to see all of the “gift-giving” ideas all over the internet this time of year.

I assure you though, I am NOT a grinch.


Do I want people to feel sorry for me?  No.  But it can be hard to explain sometimes that I’m just “not into”  Christmas like other people are.   I have been called a grinch (and call myself that now just so that I’m the first to do it – it softens the blow), I’ve been told to just do Christmas the way I want to anyway (tried that, is disappointing to say the least because I DO have expectations) and I’ve even tried actually going home for Christmas which was so long ago I don’t even know anymore if it filled any empty spaces in my heart.   I just was thinking of maybe going back next year but then I don’t want to leave Ron at home and I’m not sure he would really enjoy the Christmas “thing”  in my birth country (for people visiting the US, it can be extremely overwhelming on a normal day, let alone the holiday).


I’ve heard from other expats in the opposite situation (European living in US) that they miss this time of year at home too.  I think holidays are so engrained in us that it becomes a part of our fabric.   So when I miss luminarias and posole and the way the snow looks covering the Sandia mountains, my friend in Chicago (originally from Austria), is missing her holiday traditions at home as well, things she wants to share with her half-Austrian children but is not able to completely replicate in the US.


Fun extra should you have 23 minutes to spare:  Here’s an interesting podcast episode from Mindful Expat – suggestions made here are actually all things I’ve done throughout the last 2 decades.


I wouldn’t give up any part of this life, let me make that clear.  But it’s not glamorous and jet-setting (ok sometimes ha!) and I do feel lonely and sad and miss things from home from time to time.  I’m human and, moreover, I’m still at least Half American.



Are you a transplant and find yourself also a little lonely this time of year?  Are you a grinch?  Do you wince at all the shopping that lay ahead of you?  Or are you one of those over-the-top-love-everything-about-Christmas-and-start-decorating-the-day-after-thanksgiving people? 


  1. Laurie says:

    Thank you for sharing your feelings about Christmas as an expat. Your post makes me realize how tough it must be for someone to be far away from the home and traditions they grew up with. We usually do put luminarias out on Christmas Eve. One time we had an exchange student staying with us from Mexico (from a town called Linares). She taught me how to make posole, and it was wonderful, but so time consuming!

    1. Renée says:

      it is tough but really only this time of year. how cool that you know about luminarias and you actually put them out as well! and posole!

  2. Darlene says:

    I can relate even not as an expat. Don’t do Christmas with my family or friends. Sometimes my mil who is grumpy and stepsons. We don’t exchange gifts since we buy what we what and when during the year. I don’t even have a tree anymore. I hope to get in a run on Christmas Day and visit the girl I mentor and her sons.

    1. Renée says:

      doesn’t it feel weird though sometimes when literally everyone around you is “doing” Christmas and you are not? At least you have plans to do something on the day – we try to do that too, at least christmas day or the day after (we call it 2nd Christmas, the Brits and others call it Boxing Day) we always go for a nice meal and to the movies.

  3. pglooney says:

    This was super interesting! While I’m not a transplant in a new country I am to Florida! Being in a warm place for Christmas is very different that back home!

    1. Renée says:

      I would find that very odd as well! One of my clients is not going for Christmas but will be going to Australia on New Year’s Day for three months. We were talking about how bizarre it will be to have massive sunshine and warmth in january!!

  4. Being Jewish makes things a lot simpler. We just don’t have holidays like Christmas (Hannukah isn’t the Jewish Christmas), but of course there are other holidays & there’s Thanksgiving.

    It’s not easy to be a fish out of water, sometimes, I’m sure. I can remember one Memorial Day when my husband wasn’t here. It’s not like we do anything for that, but I was walking the dogs & it seemed everyone was having parties and I felt so alone. I can understand a little bit (but not about being an expat, having never been one).

    Hugs! You can love your life but still not love everything about your life.

    1. Renée says:

      thanks Judy. I know it’s different for other religions – my best friend is Jewish and they definitely don’t do anything at all for Christmas! it’s kind of amazing how predominant the holiday is though, for religious and non religious alike. I can imagine that you felt out of it on Memorial Day when you were just on your own. It’s so true – and I do love my life, but as you said, not EVERYTHING about it.

  5. I had never really thought about how hard it must be for someone to live in another country on a major holiday. We all grow up with certain traditions and expect everyone else to go along. Hey, I say if you enjoy buying other gifts then go for it! I hope you have a happy holidays even if it is different than what you are used to

    1. Renée says:

      oh I used to do gifts and I am leaning more towards baking and such during the holidays now rather than gift giving. But when it’s just me and the Man, we just don’t do it.

  6. I am so glad you linked this post up with us!
    I teach ESL (English as a second langauge) and we’ve been talking about holiday traditions in different countries. It is eye opening to see that although we make Christmas a big deal here in America that there are other countries that don’t but some of them have other holidays that are a bigger deal. I bet it is extremely hard to let go of the traditions you have known. Are there new traditions you can make with the kids ( even if they have nothing to do with Christmas)?

    1. Renée says:

      interesting! I did try to do this with the kids when they were little, but they are 20 and 17 now and it’s just not a Dutch thing. The one thing I always wanted was christmas eve with the 4 of us and that was suggested this year by my step-daughter instead of me trying to push it on everyone – i’d say that is a success at least as far as creating traditions with them is concerned!

      i’m super interested in other holidays around the world. We have a lot of Indian colleagues where I work and on the first day of Diwali I saw several of them dressed in beautiful clothes, even though they had to come to work (in India I don’t think ANYONE was working haha!). So I wished a few of them Happy Diwali and they were so happy and excited that someone here actually knew about their holiday!

  7. This was such an interesting read. I grew up celebrating Christmas with my maternal grandmother, my mom’s three sisters (and all their families) and all my cousins. it was something I looked forward to each year. Then I got married, and my first “married” Christmas was with my in-laws. It was such a foreign thing to me…they all sat around in sweatpants and sloppy clothing and just did so many things very differently than I was used to. Other than exchanging gifts, it felt like a family potluck rather than a holiday celebration. As much as I tried to keep an open mind, it was a very lonely experience for me. After a few years of doing Christmas back with my family (and New Years Day with the in-laws), my hubby even admitted to liking my family’s get-together better LOL Bottom line, it is TOUGH to celebrate a holiday in a different setting with people who have different traditions. I can totally relate to what you’ve experienced.

    1. Renée says:

      wow amazing that even your families were so different! I guess that is what I feel like all the time with Christmas here! It just all seems so “off”, you know? I’m glad that it worked out in your favor anyway. I didn’t even think about that the holiday celebration could be different in the same culture but different families.

  8. Wendy says:

    I think we way overdo Christmas here and your low key holiday sounds kind of appealing. It would be nice to have a happy medium. I know with my boys traditions are very important and I’m sure it was hard when your stepkids didn’t want to enjoy yours.

    How did you find hominy in Europe for your posole?

    1. Renée says:

      I think that as well, Wendy. A happy medium would actually be amazing!

      I think I had been back home that year because I definitely didn’t find the hominy in Europe. I used to bring back stuff all the time and just have it ready to make mexican food when the mood struck me. I can tell you though I’ve never made posole since …

  9. says:

    I can imagine it would be hard with different traditions, etc. I know we have our own traditions as a family that we have set over the years. I have to say, I think the “present” part of Christmas is overrated…it is stressful and I definitely do not enjoy it as much as I used to, so I am kind of envying your “no presents”. Thank you for sharing this post, I learned so many things about you through it!! Here’s to 2019, may it be the best one yet!!!

    1. Renée says:

      yes the gift giving is kind of over the top. I feel like we are missing the real message of christmastime. kind of like thanksgiving, you know? like, be together with your family, love them, share a nice meal, give a few gifts but don’t break the bank.

      Thanks and I’m looking forward to 2019!!

  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings! They are 100% valid and very understandable!
    Although I am not in a different country, I am far from my family and it is hard to not be around them at the holidays! They don’t send gifts or ever make an effort to come here, so that can me challenging at times too.

    When I was younger I would leave the country (mostly to get away from the cold) and I enjoyed learning about how other countries celebrated Christmas!
    Sending you cheer from across the pond!

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