Author: Megan Lee

5 Tips for Celebrating Christmas in a Foreign Culture

Christmas and its traditions seem to quickly be seeping across many borders. Whether you are reading this from your home in jolly ol’ England or sunny Dubai, whether you have a view of Mt. Everest or are taking in the surf on Australia’s Gold Coast, it’s likely that you have already heard Jingle Bells or seen brightly lit up Christmas trees in sometimes the most random locations. When I was an intern in Beijing, China, I often forgot I was living in a country where Christmas is not a national holiday (that is, until I remembered I had to go to work that day).


Though most of those Christmas decorations may be concentrated in hotels and shopping malls, it was still hard to ignore the celebration of Christmas in this otherwise secular country. Christmas in China is largely based on its depiction in foreign media. The combination of marketing and its status as a foreign holiday that’s  “hip” or “luxurious” have led many shops, restaurants, markets, et al. to hop on the Christmas bandsleigh. But does it really feel like Christmas?

Not exactly. Still, for me Christmas is a special time to share with family, friends, and good food, no matter where you are.

Celebrating Christmas in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas the way you do at home (or doesn’t celebrate Christmas traditionally at all) this year? While celebrating Christmas abroad may not be exactly like celebrating Christmas at home, it can certainly still be special and memorable. Try these tips for finding those warm fuzzy holiday feelings without the familiar comforts of home.

1. Embrace local holiday traditions!

Avoid the gluhwein-less blues by adding a local twist to your holiday feast. Last year, I ate dumplings on Christmas to avoid cold ears and celebrate China’s winter solstice holiday. It was scrumptious and heart-warming. While it may take a good attitude and a little creativity, you will be thinking your rice is mashed potatoes in no time.


In many Latin American countries, gifts may be exchanged at a later date than the 25th of December, often on January 6th, for Epiphany, also known as Three Kings Day. While this does mean a longer “no peeking!” time, the celebrations are usually fun and memorable and sometimes there are parades.

2. Add flair from the local culture!

Perhaps the sunny climate of Thailand makes it hard for Douglas Firs to grow. Who says palm trees don’t look festive with a star on top? Some people have gone so far as to make sandmen instead of snowmen, or drink milk tea instead of eggnog (though I am not sure how tasty milk tea is with rum).


Instead of pouting over lost traditions (a surefire way to get yourself on the naughty list), embrace a using what’s available locally to celebrate your country or family’s Christmas traditions.

3. Buy yourself a present!

Treat yourself to something special for the holiday – a scuba dive certification, a comfier seat on the next train, a splurge at the foreign goods store on Butterfingers, expanded storage space for your blog. It is Christmas, after all!


Speaking of presents, I would recommend not forgetting to send your family a little something back home! Whether this means shopping online or a trip to the nearest post office is up to you – either way, its good to share the love this time of year. Even if your trip budget doesn’t allow for international postage and gifts, you can always send an e-card or make your own video greeting to email.

4. Invite new friends to help you celebrate!

Being invited by friends to celebrate their favorite holiday traditions always makes for a meaningful experience. While Spring Festival is best shared in the company of Chinese, so too is Christmas in the company of people who have celebrated it for many years.


For me, this is the best way to share the Christmas spirit. It is a unique opportunity to teach your new friends what Christmas really means to you. Christmas manifests itself differently in many different families – some eat brunch, some go to the movies, some stay home and overdose on cookies. But I find one binding force – people choose to spend this day with the people who matter most to them.

5. Deepen your friendship and share the magic!

When I lived in China, many friends and family asked me if it really feels like Christmas here. While there were a lot of the same decorations, the same songs playing overhead, Christmas dinners, wintry cold, and churches with Christmas eve services, there really is no place like home for the holidays. However, rather than letting this sentiment justify feeling lonely, I chose to spice things up and face the season with a warm-hearted smile.

“We talk a lot about tradition this time of year, but as much as we love our traditions, sometimes our best memories come from the times that are most untraditional.” — Jay, Modern Family

Have you ever celebrated the holidays far from home? What’d you do to make the most of the experience?

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Photo Credits: Dorason,  tata_aka_T, pcesarperez, jayneandd, 6S, paya.ic