I spent last Christmas with my landlord.
We had moved into her apartment building when my husband got accepted to medical school in Grenada—and since we couldn’t afford plane tickets home for the holiday, we decided to spend it on the island.
We were prepared to have a lonely Christmas. All of our friends traveled back to America, and we were literally the only people in our apartment complex. No big deal, I thought. Between studying abroad, mission trips, and summers spent with relatives, I had plenty of experience being far from home.
But this time? I wasn’t sure I could make it. Sure, I had spent other holidays without immediate family—tearing up turkey legs with college roommates or unwrapping presents with in-laws—but at least those bore some resemblance to the festivities I celebrated with my own parents and siblings. This time, I faced a completely different culture and had almost nothing to keep me grounded.
Everything on the island felt like the opposite of Christmas: the weather was still hot and steamy, stores weren’t coated in lights and tinsel, and the blaring holiday music was filtered through Caribbean beats and instruments… oh, and forget about finding hot peppermint mochas or snowmen. How was I supposed to celebrate Christmas here when nothing about it felt familiar?
1. Find a community to celebrate with
In this case, my landlord’s family. She drove us to her mother-in-law’s place, a sprawling open-air house with a breathtaking ocean view and—I kid you not—a peacock in the front yard. Sure, this family was a far cry from my own; they had enough money to send their kids to college in Canada and the US, and traveled to distant countries as casually as if they were running down the street for groceries. But they also welcomed us as their own, playing with my son and gushing over the Oreo bars I made. Celebrating with them was so much better than my original vision of sitting with my husband in our quiet, empty apartment.
2. Observe local traditions…
Normally I’d expect to watch Christmas movies with my parents, drink apple cider, and participate in my family’s white elephant gift exchange. But this time, my new family filled our cups with sugary rum punch, played silly games, and opened Christmas crackers (or whatever you call those firecracker thingys). Even if I tried, I never could have recreated “my” holiday so it would feel exactly like home. In this place and time, this was the Christmas that fit.
3. … But incorporate your own traditions too
When we got home that night, my husband and I blasted carols, watched our favorite Christmas specials, and ate our weight in sugar cookies. When all the Caribbean traditions and norms felt out of our control, these rituals helped us own our holiday.
4. change your idea of “home”—if only for one day
Back in middle school, I made a plane trip by myself and had no idea what I was doing. When we boarded, I didn’t realize the plane had assigned seats and ended up in the wrong spot. The man who did belong in that seat, instead of making me feel guilty or stupid, kindly asked me to show him my boarding pass, read the letter and number of my assigned seat, and sat there instead.
When my landlord invited us over for Christmas, I remembered that moment on the plane. It made me realize that the gentle help from strangers or acquaintances makes you feel part of a bigger community—one beyond your immediate family.
Everyone says the holidays are about giving and good cheer, but I would also add that they’re about realizing that home is where you belong in the present moment. Finding the flow between old and new cultures is much more fulfilling than wishing it could all fit your preset expectations.
Yes, I spent last Christmas with my landlord—and it was one of my favorite holidays of all.