7. Turn it into a party. Thanksgiving is an example of a great holiday for the expat looking to reach out: a day where nothing is required except eating a large meal and mumbling a few words beforehand about all that is good in the world. Assuming you can wrangle local friends to your house on what is for them a regular Thursday, it’s the perfect opportunity to cement friendships while introducing people to an American cultural mainstay. Along the same lines, an Easter Egg hunt is ideal for delighting a big group of kids and their parents, because no one in any country can resist plastic eggs with candy inside. Just be prepared for a potential crowd: when expat friends of mine felt lonely celebrating the eight nights of Chanukah away from their families, they invited friends and colleagues in Botswana over for fried foods and celebration, and 75 people showed up!
8. Be sensitive to difference. Being a good guest in a foreign country means respecting their special days too, which is why you could find me every day at noon during the entire month of Ramadan furtively slurping down my lunch in the office supply closet when I worked in Pakistan. You’ll want to know the basics of the religious and cultural rituals where you reside to make sure you don’t offend your hosts or ruin their own routines. For example, while Halloween has become a major occasion in the United States, it may pass without a blip in some countries due to discomfort with its “underworld” element, and I’m still embarrassed about the time I served ham alongside the turkey when a few Muslim friends came to a Thanksgiving dinner celebration. They didn’t utter a word of complaint, but I found out later that pork shouldn’t even be prepared in the same kitchen.
9. Do something spectacular. My friend Robin and her family ushered in Christmas at the pyramids one year and by swimming in the Arabian sea the next: two exotic locales that were local for them. One antidote for the holiday blues is doing something unique that is only possible because of your far-flung location. And there’s another bonus: instead of laboring over a stack of holiday cards, you can post the resulting family photo to Facebook with a few words of good cheer and you’re done!
10. Loosen the rules. Being far away from family obligations means you can write your own playbook. Always hated Halloween? Skip it: your neighbors won’t notice. Think Thanksgiving dinner is best served at a hotel? Order away. And if you want to spend Christmas catching up on work emails and eating take-out, you can. (Although if you have children, they probably won’t appreciate your Grinch routine.)
The bottom line is that the best holidays happen when you are free to enjoy the moment and create new memories, and being in a new country can actually make that easier. There is something special about spending holidays overseas: a magical element that seems to make things more memorable.
That’s why I can tell you that it was Christmas Eve 2009 in Islamabad, Pakistan when I discovered the most disgruntled elf in the world in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel. Or that on Thanksgiving Day 1996 I made yams with marshmallows for 40 nuns in a convent in rural England and can still picture their amused faces. And I’ll never forget my most recent Fourth of July, drinking ice-cold gin and tonics out of a steel safari mug under the sparkling stars of a pitch-black night in the southern Africa bush for a different kind of fireworks show.