How to Survive the Holidays When You’re Far from Home

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?

If you're traveling or living abroad, celebrating major holidays can be tough. Read about how to get through it here. 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.

Ever had to spend the holidays in a new place? Tell me about it in the comments!

If you're traveling or living abroad, celebrating major holidays can be tough. Read about how to get through it here.


  1. says

    I’ve never actually been away from home, but one year my parents traveled to other family so it was my little family and my brother. It was so strange to not have our parents here for the holidays and it was kind of a stark reminder that someday, they won’t be here. So we did what we would normally do, but in hindsight, I wish we would have maybe started up a new tradition in their absence.

    • gradgirl says

      It’s understandable to associate home with our parents–my holidays without them always feel weird, too. Glad you made the best of it, though.

  2. says

    How wonderful that your landIord invited you to spend Christmas with her and her family! As a single person whose family lives states away, every holiday season comes with the anxiety of knowing I have to figure out where to spend the holidays so I don’t feel alone. I think sometimes people forget about us single folk as they’re focused on their own family, cooking, gifts, etc. I spent last Christmas and NYE traveling. On Christmas Day I was in Copenhagen with a good friend and had a blast. I even got the snow I wouldn’t get at home in SF. It’s fascinating seeing how other cultures celebrate the same holiday!

    • gradgirl says

      Sounds like you had a blast!! And, yes, this experience definitely taught me that a) holidays are best spent with others and b) they can be an awesome cultural experience. :)

  3. says

    I’m glad your holiday turned out to be fun. When I was in college, I was far from home, but regretted it at the last minute that I wasn’t going home for Thanksgiving, only Christmas. So, instead, i took a road trip with friends to see her family. It ended up being a lot of fun, and made me forget (at least a little big) about not being home.

    • gradgirl says

      Trips with roommates are the best, Shann! I’ve always enjoyed holidays with them because they’re practically family anyway, haha.

  4. says

    The last time I spent Christmas with my parents, I was 17. I’m now 24, so it’s been a while–this year, though, we’ll actually be together for Christmas. You’re right that it’s really helpful to change your ideas and expectations for the holiday!

    • gradgirl says

      Wow, that’s a long time! But it sounds like you got to make the holiday your own in that time, which is just as valuable. :)

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