If movies tell us anything, it’s that not being home for holidays can be one of life’s tragedies. To be fair, for those of us lucky to have families we love spending time with, the thought of being apart from them during Christmas or Hanukkah might be hard to fathom.
But it can also lead to a great adventure.
For five years, I had a magazine job in Australia where the entire office would take a month off from early December to early January for vacation. Since it was the only time I got to travel all year, I would attempt to satiate my annual buildup of wanderlust by cramming as much travel into those four weeks as I possibly could. But since very few of my friends were able to take that much time off at once, it meant that if I wanted to see the world, I would have to do it solo – often spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve alone amongst complete strangers.
So far I’ve spent Christmas in 12 different countries across five continents (more than a third of the Christmases in my lifetime). While some of those were with friends and family, a great many were spent by myself. And you know what? They were also some of my most memorable.
Here’s why spending the holidays alone in a foreign country isn’t so bad:
It takes you outside your comfort zone.
We get so used to our family holiday traditions that things can often go by in a blur, with one year morphing into the next. But some of life’s most meaningful moments come when we step out of our usual routines and into situations that challenge us to experience things in a way that is completely foreign to us. Of course, that’s the beauty of traveling – not only does it teach you to be content with your own company, but it pushes you to try things and meet people you never would have otherwise encountered.
On one Christmas vacation while traveling to a tiny island in the Philippines, I briefly met a French girl while we were both waiting for a boat and we exchanged email addresses. A year later when I ended up living in Paris, she became one of my dearest friends – and still is to this day.
It puts your own life in perspective.
Often we don’t realize how fortunate we are until we see the circumstances that other people in the world live in. I spent one Christmas vacation volunteering in Antigua, Guatemala at an under-funded nursing home for the abandoned or impoverished elderly. None of the residents in the home had any family to speak of, and so Christmas was a lonely time for them.
Another year I volunteered in Pisco, Peru, helping rebuild houses for earthquake survivors who were living in a shanty town of tents and shelters constructed from tarpaulins. The only gift that any of the local kids received was a small, inexpensive toy donated by volunteers, and yet they treasured it dearly.
And last Christmas Day in New York, I worked with Meals on Wheels to deliver lunch to the homebound elderly in Harlem. For many of them, the few minutes we spent chatting as we delivered their meal was the only contact they had with another person that day – and they were all so grateful for it.
… some of life’s most meaningful moments come when we step out of our usual routines …
You’ll learn new traditions.
As an Australian, my idea of a great Christmas is being at the beach having a barbecue lunch on a summer’s day. In fact, when the weather starts to warm up in New York in June, it always makes me feel like the festive season is coming. So the year I spent it amongst snow-covered mountains in Banff, Canada, (where a rogue moose was wandering through town with Christmas lights stuck in its antlers) was definitely exciting and different for me.
While it’s easy to dwell on what you’re missing out at home, think about all the new things you can experience in the country you’re in, be it a festive dish, a song, or a tradition in celebration of the holiday. For instance, did you know that at midnight on New Year’s Eve in Spain they eat 12 grapes – one for each stroke of clock?
The idea of family takes on new meaning.
Though you mightn’t be spending the holiday with your actual family, often you’ll find yourself surrounded by a new “family” – fellow travelers staying in the same hostel or hotel, the people you’re volunteering with, or even locals who invite you into their homes. Though you may be sitting alongside strangers as you enjoy your Christmas dinner or ring in the New Year, they might soon become some of the best friends you’ll ever make. And you’ll be reminded of the generosity of spirit that is the foundation of holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah.
Instead of focusing on how much you miss spending the holidays with your family, take the time to think about all the things you love about them. Thanks to Skype and FaceTime, you can still connect on the day, and chances are – if you’re home for the holidays next year – you’ll appreciate your family in a completely different way.
Have you spent holidays away from family? What did it teach you?
Images via Müjgan Afra Özceylan