Asia Korea Living Abroad Travel

How to Celebrate the Holidays While Living Abroad

Editor’s Note: This post was written December 2015. This will be my second Christmas in Korea. It doesn’t get easier being away from family so I’ll be doing the same things to keep the holiday spirit alive! Cheers for 2017!

The holidays are upon us and December is busy, busy, busy. In Canada, people are cutting down their Christmas trees, sitting sideline at the Santa Claus Parade, and hitting up holiday parties left right and centre. Maybe they’re enjoying the first snowfall (although I heard it’s quite balmy in Southern Ontario right now). In Korea, it’s a whole different experience!

Christmas is a public holiday in Korea. This year it happens to fall on a Friday (yay, long weekend!). But that’s the only day we get off. My students will be back in school and I’ll be set to teach the following Monday.

Many people take part in Christmas traditions in Korea and it’s becoming a bigger celebration here.

But it’s still far from what I’m used to back home.

For starters, I don’t see Christmas décor everywhere. I don’t hear carols on the radio. I don’t see Santa Claus at the mall. As Cindy Lou-Who once said: where are you Christmas?!

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Thank you previous teacher for leaving these lights!

Second, Christmas is considered more of a couple’s holiday where you spend time with your loved one. Think Valentine’s Day, with a side of eggnog. I asked my students what they want for Christmas and they basically looked at me with blank stares. My co-teacher explained to me afterwards that gift-giving is not a big ordeal. I told her I wish that was the case in North America and proceeded to show her a video from a recent Black Friday sale. Yikes!

Getting festive

Christmas is a time to be with your family and to be festive with friends. When you’re living abroad, it can be difficult to adjust. All the sights, sounds and smells you’re used to are almost non-existent. I keep forgetting that Christmas is this week! This is my first time being far away from familiar holiday traditions – but you just got to make the most of it!

Here are some ways to get into the holiday spirit when you’re missing the real thing back home.

Explore the city

Tis the Season!

Find out if any places in the city are doing anything Christmas-y. Like I mentioned, Christmas is becoming more celebrated in Korea so there’s bound to be something going on, especially within the expat community. My friend and I got a little taste of home as we walked Nampo, a popular district in Busan known for its awesome street food vendors and clothing shops. Nampo did not disappoint – there were lights galore! Plus there were Christmas trees, life-sized snowmen and sleds and candy canes lining the streets. And then straight ahead, we see the pièce de résistance – the gigantic LED Christmas tree on display in the centre of Nampo square. Best believe we stopped to take some selfies! Check out Busan Haps for more things to do in the city.

 

Do a gift exchange with friends

This past weekend my friends and I got together for a gift swap. We decided to tweak the rules of White Elephant and the game was a hit! After some fierce competition (sorry for stealing your wine, S.H.) we all ended up with some awesome gifts. Being together to celebrate the holidays finally made it feel somewhat like Christmas. Plus, it’s an excuse to indulge in some cookies, cheese and wine!

Teach a Christmas lesson in class

I think it’s important for my students to learn about other cultures and to see how holidays are celebrated around the world. So I suggest teaching a lesson focused on Christmas (or any holiday!). Do some arts and crafts; sing some carols (they love ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’); pop in a Christmas movie (The Grinch is one of my faves); or have a yuletide party complete with hot chocolate and games! Remember to show lots of pictures with your friends and family getting into the festive spirit. They love getting a glimpse into their foreign teacher’s life back home!

Skype with your fam jam

If you are feeling homesick during the holidays, have a video chat with your family back home. They’re only a Skype call away. I know it always makes me feel better when I can see them. Although I can’t physically be there to take part in decorating the Christmas tree, or to taste my mum’s famous shortbreads, I can still see what’s going on back home and be there in spirit. Thank you, technology!

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Merry Christmas!

These are just some of the ways I am adjusting to my first Christmas in Korea. On Christmas day, my friends and I are going to go to dinner with the possibility of Christmas karaoke afterwards (if we’re not stuffed like turkeys!).

How are you coping with holiday homesickness? Leave a comment below!

I wish everyone a happy and safe holiday season. All the best for 2016 2017!

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46 Comments

  • Reply
    Steven
    December 23, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Great piece, Samantha! Ya know, one of the biggest challenges of being an ex-pat is the grim reality that most of us can’t be with our friends and family back home during the holidays. It’s a high price to pay for the life we life abroad, but as the old saying goes, “Ya gotta give somethin’ to get somethin’!” Thanks for the very well-times reminder that although we’re not home for the holidays, if we put in a little bit of effort, we can have “home” here in Korea!
    Cheers, and go easy on the egg nog. 😉

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 26, 2016 at 7:19 am

      Totally true. I was hoping someone would come visit me during the holidays but you know how crazy flight prices can get during this time. I’ll get to see my family when I return home in a few months…we’ll do lots of celebrating then! Cheers to a new year! 🙂

  • Reply
    Wendy Flor
    December 20, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    From a country where Christmas is considered a season (when the -ber month starts, we hear Christmas carols), Korea is the saddest place to be during Christmas:-)…. 10 years ago was even worse. At least these days, we see lots of Christmas decors in big malls already.

    My family and I always go home to the Philippines during the holidays. Never fail. We owe it to our children and to ourselves. But before we go, I always host Christmas parties in the house and have some Christmas celebrations in other venues. It’s fun and it’s something that my family and friends look forward to.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 21, 2016 at 5:01 am

      Wow, I can’t imagine how it was 10 years ago… I’m glad there’s a bit of Christmas and more and more coming through each year in Korea.

  • Reply
    Alessandra
    December 20, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    Oh gosh I have been in a situation like that when I lived abroad where Christmas is not such a big deal (and I loved this time of the year!). Thank you for sharing those tips! 🙂

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 20, 2016 at 12:54 pm

      I’ve got used to it being in my second year living abroad. Happy holidays!

  • Reply
    adventuresofchris
    December 20, 2016 at 12:36 pm

    Great ideas! Secret Santa with friends is usually the best way, even if these are friends you only met at a hostel a couple days before.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 20, 2016 at 12:53 pm

      Secret Santa is awesome! Or the gift stealing game, lol

  • Reply
    Travel with Karla
    December 20, 2016 at 4:19 am

    Great list! I always do Skype with my family every holidays. You forgot to mention one thing, how about going to church? CHRISTmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birthday after all. ^_^

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 20, 2016 at 12:45 pm

      I forgot the most important, you are right! There are some foreign churches here in Busan. Many of the teachers go.

  • Reply
    Dang Travelers
    December 19, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    I have spent a few holidays away from home, but never Christmas just yet. I’m sure it’ll happen soon since we are traveling more and more each year. Thanks for these tips, much appreciated!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 11:59 pm

      No problem! I hope you have a wonderful holiday! Cheers!

  • Reply
    Nerdventurists
    December 19, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    I snuck home for Christmas, but I’ve spent many a Christmas away from home, and it’s always hard. Surrounding yourself with friends and keeping busy are def the way to go. I loved teaching my students Christmas lessons when I worked in Japan. They liked it too haha.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 11:59 pm

      I saw your surprise video! That’s awesome! I hope you have a wonderful holiday season!

  • Reply
    Melody Pittman (@melodytravels)
    December 19, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    Nice tips for holidays abroad. I hope to celebrate with my family in Germany next year. I admire your strength to do things so out of the box. Happy holidays.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 11:57 pm

      Thank you Melody! I hope you have a wonderful happy and safe holidays! <3

  • Reply
    Hedgers Abroad
    December 19, 2016 at 2:27 pm

    As others have said, I was very excited/confused by your assertion that Christmas was on on Friday this year! Regardless, this is a wonderful post about celebrating abroad. We will very soon be having a foreigner meetup with foreign foods, white elephant, and some gameplay, at your suggestion, and I’m sure it’ll go swimmingly!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 11:57 pm

      Haha oops! Yes thats why I made an editors note that this post was written last year. Hope you have a great holiday!

  • Reply
    Chronic Wanderlust
    December 19, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    I’ve spent the last two christmases and another two before that abroad and what I found the best way was to pre-celebrate with the family. Also this year I’ve visited my parents and we did like it was the 24th already. We had a lovely dinner and the christmas tree was all lit up and there were presents and good vibes

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 2:01 pm

      What a nice way to celebrate with the family! I’ve been away for 2 years so I’m looking forward to next Christmas to be with the family and eat, drink and be merry!

  • Reply
    Rocio Cadena
    December 19, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Great tips! I am actually hosting a potluck style dinner with friends, like I did for Thanksgiving, which was a total success! We will be doing a White Elephant as well, so I am super excited. And it goes without saying that I’ll be skyping my family as well 🙂

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 2:00 pm

      That’s awesome! I had a potluck for “Friendsgiving” too!

  • Reply
    Kevin's Travel Diary
    December 19, 2016 at 9:53 am

    I always find it interesting how other cultures spend Chrismas, to be honest this sounds a bit like my Christmas as i work all day (hotel manager). Great post and thanks for sharing this experience, if i ever get a Christmas off I’d have to go somewhere that goes all out.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 12:02 pm

      I find it interesting too! I would love to go to a Christmas market in Germany or something! That would be pretty cool.

  • Reply
    alla0909
    December 19, 2016 at 9:27 am

    I love playing the White Elephant gift game – it’s always a riot! As for Christmas itself, I feel like this year our city of Daejeon is especially lit up with lights, decorations and ornaments around various parts in the city. As for carols, I get my fill in coffee shops and stores. They need to make some new ones though and funny Christmas comedies like “Elf”

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 9:43 am

      Ya this year seems to be more Christmas-y than last! Speaking of “Last Christmas” my students seems to really like that song, too! haha.

  • Reply
    Kate Carter Hickey
    December 19, 2016 at 8:47 am

    I think I have the exact same photos from that gift exchange on my site! Ugh…I miss you girls (and your delectable treats) so much! I’m looking forward to seeing you in 12 days for NEW YEARS EVE. I’ll be home this Christmas…can ya believe it?!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 9:42 am

      It was so fun! Wish you could join us for Secret Santa this year but I think I’d take being home for xmas instead! I hope you have a very happy holidays and see you for New Years in Seoul!

  • Reply
    Nathan
    December 19, 2016 at 5:23 am

    There are some great ideas in here as I get ready to celebrate a holiday abroad! Great post!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 5:31 am

      Awesome! Hope you have a happy holiday!

  • Reply
    Shelley @Travel-Stained
    December 19, 2016 at 2:16 am

    We didn’t really celebrate Christmas too much growing up, so I don’t miss it too too much, but now that I have a daughter, we’re definitely wanting to create some holiday traditions for her. A bit difficult in Korea (I can’t even find a decent looking stocking to stuff for her!), but thinking maybe hitting the European Christmas markets might give us a little bit of holiday cheer. Happy holidays! 🙂

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 5:30 am

      That’s great you can create some holiday traditions for your daughter. Have you tried going to daiso? I bought a normal red stocking there last year!

  • Reply
    Chasing KM
    December 19, 2016 at 1:35 am

    We just went to Nampo this Friday night, I so love seeing the lights and getting that festive feeling. Being from South Africa, the cold weather and mulled wine over Christmas season doesn’t really elicit strong feelings of home sickness because we don’t have that at home- so this is all quite novel! Instead our Christmas is spent drinking beer outside and swimming in the pool all day!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 5:29 am

      That would be a fun way to celebrate (beer and swimming!). Hope you liked Nampo. It’s so fun to go explore, all year round!

  • Reply
    Always a Friday
    December 19, 2016 at 12:55 am

    What a great blog, we’re spending Christmas in Vietnam this year, it’s going to be very different to what we’re used to so these tips will come in handy!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 19, 2016 at 5:29 am

      Aw that will be a nice time! Enjoy your holidays abroad!

  • Reply
    The Roaming Renegades.com
    December 18, 2016 at 2:13 pm

    This will be our first Christmas away from home and we will be in Cambodia, so will probably be quite a strange experience for us! These are great tips though and we have already arranged to Skype our family on Christmas day!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 18, 2016 at 11:50 pm

      Oh awesome, Christmas in Cambodia will be an experience. I’m going there in March. Where are you staying?

  • Reply
    Lisa (Simple Sojourner)
    December 18, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    I guess you just have to be creative to make the most of any holiday. Glad your doing that. Skype is a great way to connect. Hope each year is even more enjoyable.

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 18, 2016 at 11:50 pm

      Yes we have to be creative! Happy holidays!

  • Reply
    jacquelineminnick
    December 18, 2016 at 7:11 am

    My last Christmas in Korea I honestly dedicated an hour to making paper snowflakes and listening to Christmas music. OH and watching “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I justified it with a cultural concept grade for each student. Christmas in Korea is different but they try to make it traditional, which is nice. Have a Merry Christmas!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 18, 2016 at 11:49 pm

      I’ll definitely be watching xmas movies. I’ve got a line up I’ll start watching this week!

  • Reply
    The Soul of Seoul
    December 18, 2016 at 2:56 am

    Skyping with the fam and getting other orphaned expats together for a holiday party are a must for us as well! I’m glad the decor is starting to catch on around here but really, I hardly see it because we have to make a whole effort to go specifically where it is TO see it. Not easy to just stumble upon yet. My house is still more decorated than many places haha. Hope you have happy holidays. ^^

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 18, 2016 at 11:48 pm

      Yes this year there are more decorations around than last.

  • Reply
    weegypsygirl
    December 18, 2016 at 2:02 am

    When I was reading this post I got so excited- whaaaat Christmas is a Friday this year, we get a day off! Then I realised it was from last year lol. Christmas is never easy in Korea, is it? I’m heading up to Jeonju to stay in a hanok village and eat bibimbap with my friends this year. Hope you enjoy your last Christmas in the land of the morning calm!

    • Reply
      Expat and the City
      December 18, 2016 at 10:39 am

      Oops! Yes this a throwback post…so this year Xmas is on Sunday (I’ll have to work the next day).

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