Alone at Christmas - stories from expats and tips for loneliness

How People Stuck Abroad are Spending Christmas in 2020

With the events of 2020 changing day-to-day life for everyone, many have been looking forward to Christmas as a chance to enjoy some quality time with their closest family and add some sparkle in the form of decorations and festive cheer. Inevitably, the season is looking a little different for everyone, but for some ex-pats, digital nomads and travellers stuck abroad, the chances of replicating a Normal Chrismas have gone out the window.

Since this will be my fourth Christmas alone (both abroad and in my birth country) and I am too well-versed in the matter to offer good advice to newcomers, I turned to travel bloggers to tell their stories and offer tips to first-timers.

I personally do not advocate travel during this time, and these stories reflect those who already live abroad or were travelling when the crisis began early this year. As someone who is familiar with spending Christmas alone, my heart extends to those who are unable to get back to their loved ones. I hope everyone has a safe place to stay and finds ways to stay positive over the festive period.

light landscape man holiday

How do you spend Christmas abroad when you can’t see your loved ones?

I asked expats and travellers stuck outside their home countries how they will be spending Christmas in 2020. Some of them are appreciating being stuck with their partners and appreciating alternate traditions, while others are managing the disappointment of being alone. Some replicate their favourite festive treats with familiar Christmas meals and decorations, while others are going to dive into exploring new cultures. Some have simply shrugged off the season this year and plan to work or engage in unrelated activities instead.

Keeping busy seemed to be the general consensus on spending Christmas abroad or alone, though whether that means getting cosy with movies and hot chocolate, enjoying fresh air while heading out on a hike, or simply getting stuck into your work or hobbies is totally up to you.

Personally, I’ll treat the day like a regular Friday, with my laptop set up on the table by 8-9am. I’ve already scheduled by workload for over the Christmas period so I don’t end up feeling like I have no purpose. I might treat myself to takeout on New Year’s Eve but only if I can’t be bothered to cook!

woman using laptop and drinking beverage in bed

How to you cope with loneliness during the festive seasons?

Along with sharing their plans, the travel bloggers below have also kindly shared some advice. We hope to remind anyone alone this year that they are part of a greater nomad community who feels for them and what they’re going through.

We all agree that staying connected is important, though we do this differently. Me? I’ll just chat over WhatsApp to a couple of friends who I know won’t be too busy around Christmas (though they will be with family) and make sure I’ve turned off general social media notifications. But for most people, scheduling video calls in advance seems to be the preference! I also spoke to a kiwi expat who always treats his sibling to a new game at Christmas which they can play together but apart, which I think is a great idea.

I’d recommend staying off social media if you are alone and it might upset you and focussing on things which make you happy, like your hobbies, a local walk or favourite TV show. But if you do feel bad on Christmas? Don’t worry. Remember it won’t be like this every year. Things will get better!

I’ll keep my Instagram DMs open over on Instagram at @Cassiethehag on Christmas day. Feel free to stop by whether you’re alone or lonely if you need a chat. (Just bear in mind I’m on New Zealand time so I might not reply straight away.)

A summary of quick tips for spending Christmas alone or abroad is also at the bottom of this post.

woman sitting on rock near river

A British expat in Luxembourg

by Zoe from Together in Transit

As a British expat living in the Netherlands, I’m not officially that far from home distance wise. But due to the lockdown tier system in the UK this means it is not safe to go back for the holidays. This holiday season I will be lucky enough not to spend it alone. I will be joining my boyfriend in Luxembourg with his sister from the middle of December for a few months, so an extended holiday will be lovely. Christmas day will be spent as the three of us, and likely a few calls to family members back in the UK.

Managing the holiday period and staying positive so far has been with plenty of phone calls, enjoying Christmas music and staying busy with hobbies after work. I will focus on photography, crafting in a journal and Netflix, if that counts as a hobby! I can totally recommend stocking up on some good books too, since I already have my nose stuck into a new thriller this December. With two books to start during some cosy Christmas evenings with a blanket, candles and maybe gluhwein!

I hope many others reading this will be inspired to find their hobby side during the holiday period too, stay positive and stay connected!

Alone in Canada

by Carly from Fearless Female Travels

I’m used to spending Christmas travelling, far away from my family on the opposite side of Canada, but a recent round-the-world trip immediately followed by 2020s global crisis means that I haven’t seen my family at all since May 2019. When things were looking more promising here in snowy, sludgy Edmonton, Canada I booked flights home for the holidays: first, a luxury hotel stay in my brother’s hometown (I can’t stay with him because of cats) and then Christmas in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house.

Unfortunately, I’m currently in one of the hardest-hit areas of the world (our local news reports that if my province was a country, we would be fourth-worst on the planet!) and when our numbers approached 2,000 new daily cases my parents called and told me to cancel my trip home. They just couldn’t risk me bringing the chance of more infections home for the holidays.  

So now I have a fully-refunded hotel stay and a flight credit valid for two years, but no plans for the holidays. Social gatherings are prohibited here, which means I won’t be hosting a Tofurkey dinner or playing third wheel at one of my married friends’ Christmas dinners.

Instead, I’m working on my escape plan: decluttering my home and brushing up on my foriegn-language skills via Duolingo (and even old-school workbooks!), so that I’m in a better position to move to Europe if our inept provincial government gets re-elected. This pandemic has made me realize the importance of living somewhere where the government puts the regular people first, and I just can’t say that about my province right now. 

A British-Korean Couple Housesitting in Cyprus

by Matthew from No Hassle Travel

We are Matt and Hye-min, a British / Korean nomad couple who have been stranded in Greece most of this year. Our plan was to make it back to either one of our countries for Christmas. But with the virus out of control in the UK and South Korea having strict rules for foreigners, we couldn’t take the risk.

We then got the news that Hye-min’s Greek visa would not be extended, so we faced the dilemma of where to go next. As our nationalities differ, separate restrictions apply to us for each country. We were worried we may have to be apart over Christmas. So, we began researching low-risk countries where we could stay.

At the top of our list was Cyprus. It’s close to Greece, virus cases are low, and we would both be accepted on a tourist visa. There were also several house-sit listings we could apply for. House sitting is the act of looking after someone’s house and pets while they are away, in exchange for free accommodation. We regularly house-sit during our travels, allowing us to live and experience a new country with zero costs.

Lucky enough, we were accepted for a fantastic 6-week house sit, looking after a beach villa with five cats and five dogs! We know that there are worst places to be for Christmas! But still, not being around family is a real heartbreaker. Although it’s not what we originally planned, we are happy to have a place to stay, animals to keep us company, but most of all, being together over the holidays.

A Kiwi Couple Working in Mongolia

by Jenny Sandiford

My husband and I are expats living in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (the coldest capital city on earth). We are both from New Zealand and usually try to head back there around Christmas time to escape the harsh Mongolian winter. However, with all the craziness of this year, we will be having a white Christmas in 2020. Mongolia closed its country borders in March 2020 and since then we have been unable to leave the country. But it’s not all bad, Mongolia has turned out to be one of the safest places in the world to be trapped!

On Christmas day in New Zealand we usually have a big BBQ Christmas lunch with family, then spend the afternoon swimming and paddle-boarding at the beach. So this year, instead of a summer beach Christmas, we plan on having a cosy indoor Christmas.

To have something fun to look forward to, we decided to hold a virtual Gingerbread house competition with our international family and friends. On Christmas day we will all share our gingerbread house photos and select a winner. We have never made gingerbread houses before so it should be hilarious!

Christmas day in Mongolia isn’t a holiday, it’s just a normal workday. So for Christmas day lunch, we will probably go to the buffet at the Shangri-La hotel for ‘orphans Christmas’ with expat friends who are far from home and looking to share a Christmas feast. Check out my blog post about Christmas in Mongolia to learn about Mongolian holiday traditions.

An Australian woman in San Francisco

by Katherine from Bright Lights of America

After five years of living in San Francisco, I was looking forward to spending Christmas in Australia with my family. I started planning a year in advance, thinking about the people I would spend time with, and the Aussie Christmas food I’d gorge on.

My nephew was due to be born in March 2020, and I was excited to meet him. He was born in Australia as the pandemic was starting to take hold across America. Soon the Australian borders were locked down. Returning citizens were paying exorbitant prices for plane tickets home and then had to fork out thousands more to stay in hotel-based quarantine for two weeks. I couldn’t get home this year.

Instead I’ll be recreating an Aussie Christmas as much as I can. I’ll set up a video chat with my dad and brothers. I can’t be there physically but at least I can feel like I’m part of my family’s celebrations. Plus there is so much to do during Christmas in San Francisco (check out my favourite activities) that I’ll definitely be in the holiday spirit. From gorgeous light displays to huge Christmas trees and decorations, Christmas shows, and life-sized gingerbread houses, there’s something for everyone.

Spending Christmas away from home and the people you love isn’t ideal. But after five years as an expat, you learn to roll with the punches and appreciate the closeness that technology can bring.

A Norwegian-Italian expat in Spain

by Linn of Andalucia Hiking

Christmas this year is full of lockdowns in Europe and it’s hard to get where you want to. My family is spread between Italy, Norway, Madagascar (which is also in lockdown), with me living in Spain. Since my last attempt to enter Italy quarantine is imposed for people entering the country from the 21st of December didn’t work out with my day job, I’ll have to stay in Spain over the holidays.

Luckily, Spain just loosened their quarantine rules, so we’ll be able to move freely throughout Andalucia during the holidays and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to do something instead of being stuck at home alone. I’ll use the days off to explore new hiking trails and connect with nature and with myself. Spending time in nature and a few nights away from home will most likely take the focus away from Christmas and the fact that I can’t be with family after it’s been a pretty tough year for all of us being apart. I also see it as an opportunity to support a small hotel somewhere in Andalucia which really needs it in this tough period and hopefully I can contribute to the place not having to shut down.

Let’s say that will be my Christmas present this year. And wherever I end up being on Christmas day, the family will get together on a video call! 

An American couple stuck in Vietnam

by Jackie and Justin from Life of Doing

This Christmas holiday will look different for us. We’re originally from California, U.S, and currently living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. For the past two years, we’ve returned home for the holidays to see family and friends. Unfortunately, the pandemic is out of control in the U.S. California just enacted a lockdown until January 4 so gatherings are canceled. Also, Vietnam has travel restrictions so it’s difficult to re-enter Vietnam and requires a 2-week quarantine on arrival.

While we’ll miss seeing everyone, we’re taking advantage of the holidays and traveling to Phong Nha, located in Central Vietnam, for five days. This area is known for the Phong Nha-Ke Ba National Park and has beautiful caves to explore. Since it’s our first time visiting, we can’t wait to check out the limestone caves such as Paradise Cave. We also signed up to do a 2 day/1 night trek to Hang En Cave, the third-largest cave in the world. It’ll be an exciting adventure to trek through the forest and streams and sleep overnight in a cave. 

For those who are not able to return home, our advice is to continue to stay connected with your friends and family through chats and video calls. Everyone can still enjoy a holiday meal over video. Also, check out your local Expat Facebook groups to see if there are any group holiday dinners that you can join to meet other people and get you into the Christmas spirit. 

An Australian Road Trip

by Tammy from Travelling Tam

2020 has been a brutal year for everyone. But being thousands of miles away from friends and family (in irritatingly opposite time zones), and not being able to visit them (and even know when I will next) stings that little bit more.

I come from the UK but have been living in Melbourne, Australia for the past 2.5 years. I was planning on visiting home in May, but of course it wasn’t an option. Now after brutal lockdowns, the state of Victoria is COVID free and life is beginning to creep back to normal, whereas things are different in the UK. 

Christmas for me has always been about family, cold and dark winter days, open fires, festive baking and Christmas markets. Being in 30*C sunshine here in Melbourne simply doesn’t feel festive, and especially without my family. So this year, I’m simply deciding not to celebrate it!

Instead of having Christmas away from home, I am taking a 10-day road trip in my new Ford Econovan I converted into a camper

I’ll be bombing it up to Adelaide on an intense 8/9 drive, then making my way back towards Melbourne, visiting gorgeous coastline and beaches, wineries and cute rural towns. I’ll also be writing blog posts and reading tonnes of books by night. On the 25th I might even have a fresh seafood BBQ or something completely different from a traditional roast!

I’ll no doubt be sad come Christmas day, but I can’t think of a more enjoyable distraction from the festivities I’m missing out on back home!

A Spanish woman in Britain

by Cristina from My Little World of Travelling

I have been living in the UK for five years, but I had never thought I would be stuck in the country. Every Christmas I go to my hometown in Spain, to spend most of the festive season with my family. This year is going to be completely different as I won’t be able to travel home due to travel restrictions. Although this isn’t my ideal Christmas and, of course, I’ll miss my family, I am going to make the most of being abroad.

Luckily, I am not alone in the UK as I live with my British partner, so I am going to dive into British culture and have a different Christmas. If you’re in a similar situation, my biggest advice is to spend time doing the things you don’t normally do. For example, being stuck in the UK gives me the chance to spend more time working on my blog, be creative and travel locally. Whereas if I was going to spend Christmas at home, I wouldn’t have the time to do all these things.

Christmas in Khatmandu

by Lieze from Glitter Rebel

This year my husband and I will be celebrating Christmas in Kathmandu. We moved to Nepal just this October after a 3-month delay due to Covid. We are staying in Nepal as quarantines and regulations make it impossible for us to visit our sheltered relatives in a secure and responsible way.

We are celebrating Christmas with my husband’s colleagues – of which the majority is staying in Nepal this Christmas. Luckily, there is a very tight and friendly expat community standing by, helping people out and trying to make this a great and lovely Christmas for everyone. Expat businesses are offering Christmas ham while restaurants serve mulled wine and other Christmas treats. There are Christmas markets, and the craft shops are even selling Christmas ornaments. We have ordered 3 kilos of Christmas ham and will be cooking up a Christmas feast in the kitchen of our friends while drinking wine and singing Christmas carols.

Although this year it is the very first time we are celebrating without our family – which will be very difficult as my husband’s grandad passed away very suddenly last year, yet we will capture the spirit of Christmas by celebrating with those we love (over Skype). And that is what it is all about, no?

A Couple Hoping to be Reunited by Christmas

by Patricia from Spanish Nomad

Dave and I have lived in Mongolia for the past two years. We currently have no clue how we are going to celebrate Christmas but one thing is for sure, we will not be able to visit our families this year. In truth, it is almost a miracle that we will be able to spend the holidays together after this crazy year.

Last March, Mongolia shut down its borders completely after a traveller infected with covid had arrived in the country. My husband and I were travelling in Russia at the time and were forced to detour. Long story short, my husband ended up in Australia and I in Spain, at my parents´ house.

Mongolia has carried out a very strict policy of repatriation, so after months of uncertainty, Dave and I have finally been able to come back to Mongolia. He is stuck in the Gobi desert, where he works, and I am in Ulaanbaatar, currently on my last week of quarantine (5 weeks in total), so we haven’t seen each other yet.

Right now, Ulaanbaatar and 2 provinces are under a strict lockdown and transportation of individuals between towns is prohibited. Restrictions are supposed to ease down next week but as of yet, we don’t know when Dave will make it back to the city.  After everything that we’ve gone through, I feel this year is less about the date and more about being finally reunited. Whenever that may be, we’ll make Christmas happen.

I hope this post helped give some insights on how people who are stuck far from their loved ones will be spending Christmas this year.

QUICK TIPS FOR SPENDING CHRISTMAS ALONE:

1. GET COSY

Wash your towels, bedsheets and favourite PJs or lounge clothes the day (or weekend) before Christmas day. This way, if you wake up feeling too tired or disillusioned to get out of bed, at least you’ll be resting in clean sheets and fresh pyjamas.

A little bit of self-care goes a long way. Take time to shower and brush your teeth! It’s worth it, I promise. Stock up on your favourite bathroom products in advance if it helps you feel good and pampered.

2. TURN OFF SOCIAL MEDIA NOTIFICATIONS (if you get FOMO)

I have mine turned off anyway since I’m half terrified of Instagram since my one year social media detox and subsequent digital minimalism rules… of course, these choices is very personal to my own needs.

If you’re part of a community on social media, such as an expat Facebook group or have a travel-dedicated Instagram, then you may find it reassuring to head online and chat about your shared experience.

If you just have close friends and family on Facebook, you may feel more involved in the festivities by heading online. Just be careful to check if you start to feel worse of left out. Making your own Christmas routine to help you cope is totally okay. Personally, I’ll likely have a quick habitual scroll on Instagram, but otherwise, I’ll steer clear.

3. STAY CONNECTED

This is something all my contributors above all agreed on! Arrange times to voice call friends and family, or you could do a video call during Christmas dinner.

Not into phone calls? Why not play a new video game with your mate or finally find a reason for that awkward communal family WhatsApp group by watching a movie ‘together’ while messaging about your favourite parts.

I generally don’t chat to people much over Christmas because I don’t want to be a wet rag while they’re having family time, but using blogs like this helps me connect with the community. Sometimes communicating via writing or creative expression is a good alternative if you’re not close to your family.

man holiday people woman

Other ways to stay connected:

You could also look up expat Christmas events in your area if you’re comfortable meeting new people. You can generally find them via Facebook Groups or MeetUps.

As an introvert who feels particularly delicate at Christmas, I always feel very invalidated when people act like it’s my ‘choice’ for being alone at Christmas for not going to these events. So, if you do recommend this to an introvert you know, suggest going with them to one of the other Expat events first or understand why this isn’t a One Size Fits All solution.

Similarly, don’t tell someone to brush loneliness off because of they could volunteer somewhere at Christmas. This is actually a great idea in theory, and definitely one I support! You would need to look up events in advance as they do actually book up volunteers fairly quickly. Similarly, often transport doesn’t run on Christmas so make sure you can get there affordably before applying. Homeless charities or local disaster charities are a good place to look for volunteering opportunities at Christmas.

Don’t mentally push yourself into doing something if you’re struggling. Whether that’s a phone call or expat event. The first time I spent Christmas alone, I felt people were really dismissive when their response was ‘just go volunteer’, like that would be at all suitable for me. Hello, anxiety and sensory overload. (I do however get one Christmas gift every year; a meal and bed for the night for a homeless person through Crisis this Christmas.)

4. STOCK UP YOUR CUPBOARDS IN ADVANCE

I’d recommend stocking up on both your favourite foods AND healthy snacks before Christmas. Eating well is definitely good for the mind, so don’t skimp on yummy vegetables… but don’t feel bad if you feel like eating seven packs of potato chips either. (I’ll be right there with you.)

If you will be alone, maybe treat yourself to one of those one-person teeny bottles of wine? Getting drunk alone is probably a bad idea, however tempting. But a nice glass of red can’t do any harm, right?

person walking on road between trees

5. EXERCISE (go for a walk in the fresh air or do yoga)

Honestly, the last thing I want to do on a bad day is exercise, but some gentle stretching is admitedly soothing. Type in ‘calming/relaxing yoga’ or ‘yoga for anxiety’ and try one of the recommended videos – there are many 10-minute Yoga videos you can even do without leaving your bed. (I would know; they’re my favourite kind.)

Alternatively, going for a walk in the local park is a good shout. Personally, I’d rather do this first thing in the morning if I knew it was going to be packed with families, or simply get my favourite playlist and headphones ready so I could zone out and lose myself in the music and movement.

6. TREAT YOURSELF TO A SPECIAL EXPERIENCE

This one is a bit tricky to achieve responsibly in 2020, though as you can see from the stories above it’s not impossible. Another year, booking a nice hotel or experience on the day – especially if you’re able to travel to a country which doesn’t celebrate Christmas – is a great idea if you want to mark the occasion. This could end up being a Christmas you’ll never forget!

7. TREAT YOURSELF TO SOME QUALITY HOME ENTERTAINMENT (OR JUST TAKEOUT)

For many of us, Christmas alone is something we’d rather shrug off, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something we enjoy.

Maybe download a Kindle book you’ve been dying to read, get a movie playlist ready in advance… or treat yourself to a new blockbuster movie even if it’s not on streaming services yet. If you find it hard to find movies to watch, maybe plan this in advance so you don’t end up scrolling on Netflix for 7 hours.

woman in black hoodie standing near brown wooden wall

8. WORK OR LEARN

Sounds terribly un-Christmassy, right? But having something productive to get stuck into can be a great distraction. I’ll be making my to-do list in advance so I can work on my website throughout the whole festive period.

9. LOOK AFTER YOUR MENTAL WELLBEING

Whether it’s booking an appointment with your doctor for ongoing anxiety, or downloading the Calm App, or going for a hike in the fresh air… Christmas can always be a strain on people’s health, but especially in 2020.

Since mental wellbeing is a subject I don’t like to compress, you can find more mental health tips on my site here:

Mental Health Guide for Travellers

Mental Health Guide for Self-Isolating

How to Practise Gratitude (and why it’s okay when it’s too hard)

How to Practise Self-Compassion

My 15-Step Sleep Routine

macbook pro beside wine glass on brown wooden table

And once again, if you’re someone who is alone or separated from loved ones this Christmas, I really wish you all the best this festive season! Whether you’ve already made some fun alternative plans or are really struggling to keep positive, don’t be afraid to reach out to me or someone you can trust if you’re feeling down. It’s totally normal to be struggling at a time like this so please don’t feel like you have to put on a brave face. We’re in this together, right? I mean, totally distanced from one another… but together in the stories, we’ll one day tell about those years we spent Christmas alone.

Much love and, since I know we can’t all quite bear the common seasonal greeting that comes in December (I believe it has the initials MC), I wish you all the best for the coming year instead.

10 Comments

  1. I personally don’t celebrate any festival, first because I’m not religious, second because it has never really been a tradition in my family, and third because I’m social phobic, so I would avoid any family gathering. But I can imagine how hard it must be for people who are used to having big celebrations with their loved ones.

  2. Really good advice here! I have had Christmas alone a few times – I didn’t mind too much when I am excited to be exploring somewhere new…or the first time we were in Canada and skiing on Christmas day.

    This year I am sad that we won’t be able to see our families (especially my baby niece and nephew that we’ve only got to meet one last year…) I guess we are lucky that we did make it home for Christmas last year…this year we’re planning to see everyone virtually instead.

  3. Really interesting to read these travellers’ stories. The pandemic has affected so many people in so many ways across the planet. It is inspiring to read your resilience, coping strategies and ways you have been able to introduce a modicum of fun (love the gingerbread houses plan). Stay safe, and hopefully the world will be a better place in 2021.

  4. These are some really great tips Cass! I’m lucky that I can spend Christmad with my beloved ones but I know there are millions of people who can’t this year. This post is for sure very helpful 🙂

  5. What a strange year 2020. Being abroad this Christmas will be for many a great opportunity to immerse themselves in a completely different tradition, and I hope they do. I’ve been lucky enough to have enjoyed Christmases in the UK, with all the British traditions, and in Spain, with all the Spanish traditions. And they could not be any more different!!

  6. There is some really great advice here. It’s hard being away from family at this time of year, but it’s nice to see people in so many different situations making new plans and making the most of their circumstances. I hope everyone has a great Christmas regardless of where they are stuck!

  7. There’s some great advice here, and even though it’s sad to read about how tough everyone’s year has been (it seems like the the of 2020), it’s also great to see how everyone is coping with the changes to their usual plans and Christmas celebrations

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