How can I cope with being away from family at Christmas?

14 December, 2022|Living abroad|
How can I cope with being away from family at Christmas? The Travel Psychologist

By Dr Jill Dunbar, Clinical Psychologist & Regular Contributor

Christmas is a time of year that can bring with it a multitude of pressures, whether it be a pressure to buy and consume, to fill your calendar with events, to see as many people as possible or simply the pressure to be happy! Even the classic Christmas songs often add to the pressure with themes of traveling home for Christmas, battling through all possible barriers with this one intention.

But what is being at home for Christmas is not possible for you, or is not part of your plan? Whether or not spending Christmas away from home is in our control it can sometimes bring about feelings of guilt or sadness.

As I prepare to spend my third Christmas away from my “home country”, I have been reflecting on ways in which we may be consciously and subconsciously impacted by the traditional festive messages, and ways in which we might cope with our mixed feelings around this time.

Adapting Traditions

Traditions tend to centre around intentionally repeated acts, customs, objects or beliefs. People tend to take pleasure in enacting traditions as they bring about a sense of belonging, whether that be to a collective or to a culture. As Christmas is often a time of tradition, it therefore makes sense that individuals living away from their home culture can often find this time of year particularly difficult, especially if you do not feel a true affiliation to the culture of your current location.

While it may be tempting, I would advise not to try to completely replicate your Christmas traditions from home, but rather pick and choose a couple which are accessible in your location, and adapt them if needed. If you try to make Christmas exactly like it was at home, you will inevitably be disappointed. However consider which traditions you would like to attempt to recreate and accept that they may look a little different, taking pleasure in the ingenuity that you may have had to draw upon. Research if there are any festive traditions in your current location and see if you can integrate some of these into your celebrations. After all tradition is about inclusion and this is an excellent opportunity to learn more about your surrounding culture. It is also a great opportunity to try new ways of celebrating which may be laying the foundations for future traditions.

Avoid Isolation

It can sometimes be tempting to consider spending the holidays alone if you are not with family or friends. However I urge you to avoid isolating yourself if you are feeling the slightest bit mournful at being away from home at Christmas. If you are finding yourself alone for the holidays, chances are you will not be the only one in your area! Every country in the world has a expat community, and rest assured you will find a few people who are in a similar situation to you. Reach out! Find the expat groups in social media and research what events and activities are being held. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, consider hosting something your self, or find a way to volunteer with the local community. Ultimately spending time with others can be a wonderful solace to melancholy.


Ensure you touch base with your important people back home, whether this be family or friends. This can be challenging when navigating substantial time differences, however consider that communication does not always have to be in real time. I have a personal tradition of recording Christmas morning videos which I send to those who are most important to me, and I always look forward to receiving their video replies as my Christmas Day comes to an end, and theirs is just beginning.

Plan well in advance

Something I have learned through experience is that if you want to even slightly embrace some of your home traditions while living abroad, you have to plan well in advance. Make connections, do the research and then book and organise to ensure your are able to access what you desire. This may mean shipping in certain products internationally, or finding a small, independent British baker in a neighbouring city that makes mince pies once a year (yes, I have a guy!). Either way, try to avoid the disappointment and regret that comes with postponing arrangements to too close to the time and ending up with nothing. But if you do – it’s a great learning experience for next year!


Most importantly, let’s keep in mind that Christmas is one day in the year and much of the pressure comes from a commercial driving force. Contextualise your own experience – remind yourself why you are currently in the place that you are in, whether it’s through moving abroad, travelling or for work. How have you ended up in this place and what were your own driving forces behind this? Why was this the choice? What are the opportunities offered by your situation, and how can you adapt this into your own unique version of Christmas? Accept that Christmas is going to look different for you, and find the beauty, the joy and the opportunity in this experience.

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas, wherever you are in the world.

How can I cope with being away from family at Christmas? The Travel Psychologist

Merry Christmas to our readers!

If you liked this article check out How to thrive when you move abroad