Celebrating the Holidays at an Overseas Duty Station

Holidays are special times. To create a warm holiday feeling when you’re stationed overseas and living in another culture, you’ll need to plan ahead, be flexible, and be open to celebrating in new ways and with new people. Being abroad at holiday times can present some challenges, but it can also provide you with an exciting opportunity to explore new ways to celebrate. By knowing which familiar holiday traditions you and your family want to preserve and being open to embracing new holiday customs, you can build a lifetime of cherished memories.

Bringing the holiday spirit with you to another country

Your adjustment to an overseas duty station may have gone smoothly. But when the holidays arrive, you may feel lonely and isolated because your close friends and extended family are far away. Your children may feel this as much as you do. Younger children may be homesick, especially if you’re living in a place where holiday traditions are very different from those back home.

There are many ways to create a holiday spirit wherever you are. You might find these ideas helpful for starters:

  • Bring holiday keepsakes with you from home. Even with limitations on the weight allowance for your household goods shipment, you may still be able to gather the familiar things that say "holidays" for you and your family. These might include favorite ornaments, holiday photos, cookie cutters or molds, recipes, candles, lights, and music. Keep your collection of treasures in a special box. At your new duty station, ask each child to take charge of unpacking and displaying or using certain things from the collection. During your overseas tour, add new treasures to remind you of the memorable traditions you began while living in your host country.
  • Shop early. Once you’re living abroad, plan to shop well in advance for holiday supplies and presents. Ordering gifts or food by mail takes time. You may want to start planning for the holidays beginning in mid-October or even earlier, depending on where you’re living. If you’re stationed on an installation with a postal service center, be sure to follow local shipping instructions.

    Most holiday supplies can be ordered online, and using the Internet is also an excellent way to order clothes and other gifts. It's important to know that some countries prohibit the shipping of certain items, such as perishable foods. Before you order, check with the installation postal service center or U.S. embassy in your host country to find out if there are any restrictions on what you may receive by mail or delivery services.

  • Make a list of things to do to get ready for the holiday. This will help build anticipation and get you and your children in the holiday mood. Involve your children and friends' children in shopping at local stores and put them in charge of activities like cookie-making. Making cookies is an activity that can be stretched out over many days and gives children something to look forward to.
  • Be creative with making decorations. You may find that you can't import everything you associate with celebrating your holidays. For example, it may be nearly impossible to find a real Christmas tree in your host country. If so, buy a native tree or shrub to decorate. Or create a whole new variety of tree out of papier-mâché, felt, or wire. The installation exchange may offer a selection of holiday items. Ask friends and family members to send you ornaments. Whether or not it looks like a traditional spruce, the new tree will remind you of the people you love.
  • Be inventive with your holiday meal. For most people, a festive meal is at the heart of a holiday celebration. A Passover Seder, a Christmas dinner, or a sundown feast during Ramadan may be the most important part of the holiday. Depending on where you live, you might find it challenging to serve a classic holiday menu. For instance, finding pureed pumpkin in the Sudan may be difficult. Be inventive, and bring your children in on the fun. Roasted duck might be a delicious substitute for turkey. If you’re near an installation, shop for supplies early at your commissary or exchange, as they may go quickly.
  • Gather together. Plan a potluck dinner with your expatriate friends and fill the room with favorite holiday music. Or feature nontraditional music -- Beatles songs or folk music, even -- as long as it reminds you of home. If you’re near an installation, take advantage of the various holiday programs that are offered. The U.S. embassy or consulate office or American Clubs may also sponsor holiday gatherings in your area.
  • Reach out. Organize an annual Christmas or Hanukkah party for friends and neighbors, perhaps with a special theme or costumes. Or consider inviting new friends to celebrate the breaking of the Ramadan fast with you and your family. Because helping others is part of every holiday tradition, consider giving gifts to a local charity or offering to help people with special needs.

Creating new traditions

During the winter months, military families overseas often feel a tug of loneliness. Many holidays also fall during these months. Fortunately, there are many ways to transform this natural sense of longing into a time of celebration. Explore your new home country and adopt some of its traditions to enrich your family's celebrations.

  • Learn about local holiday traditions in your host country. Be open to celebrating in new ways! For example, in Bolivia, as is true in much of South America, a big celebration featuring huge displays of fireworks takes place on Christmas Eve. Another lovely South American tradition is walking together after the holiday meal. The Anglican Harvest Sunday, celebrated in October, feels like Thanksgiving. All local holidays where people gather and celebrate are a chance to find the foods and the community spirit you long for. Your installation may offer programs that will introduce you to local holidays and traditions. The U.S. embassy or consulate's office also has information about local holidays. And you can check online sources such as Earth Calendar.
  • Include new friends in your celebrations. Bring friends from your host country into your family's celebrations. Invite new friends to your holiday meal or party. Share stories from holiday celebrations of the past and ask your guests to tell you something about how they celebrate holidays.

Holidays are a time to be with family and friends and give thanks for the good health, abundance, and love you share. Being away from home during the holidays can be a challenge, but it’s also a chance to create new traditions and take part in the holiday customs of your host country. Preserving the familiar holiday traditions you value most while exploring new ways of celebrating can make the holidays you spend abroad some of your happiest.


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