21 December, 2016

Expat Holiday Blues

The holidays are a special time of year for most people. Christmas (or another winter holiday if you don't celebrate Christmas) is a time for family, gift-giving and, hopefully, good cheer. But for expats like me, this time of year can come with conflicting feelings.

Since I moved to Germany more than three years ago, I've only been home to the US for Christmas once, and this holiday season that is not going to change. I will once again be spending the holidays in Germany, which comes with its own set of wonderful traditions, like Christmas markets and the associated mass consumption of Gl├╝hwein (or mulled wine, which America is desperately lacking!). But this time of year inevitably presents expats like me with a specific set of hardships which serve to remind us of what we gave up to live the lives we've chosen for ourselves.

Missing Family and Friends

Me with my sister this time last year when she came to visit me.

Most noticeably, the holidays season throws into sharp relief what is missing, which is family, holiday traditions from home, and seeing old friends who are also home for the holidays. Trying to recreate some of the holiday traditions from home just isn't the same as the real thing and can even exacerbate the feeling of disconnection from loved ones. I've tried playing some of my family's most-loved Christmas albums in order to infuse the cold days with holiday cheer, but sometimes hearing my favorite Christmas tunes just makes me cry.


Missing out on all of the family time around the holidays inevitably brings with it feelings of guilt. I feel this type of guilt at other times of year, too, such as this past summer when I wasn't able to visit my newborn cousin, but the holidays are a consistent, yearly reminder that my decision to move abroad has consequences not just for me but for my entire family. In a way, being missed shows that you are appreciated, but being missed around such a special time of year leaves me feeling more guilty than usual, especially since this is the second year in a row that I won't be with my family for Christmas.

The Dilemma of Gifts

Being far away also causes some logistical issues: do I spend a ton of money shipping gifts overseas or do I order something online that can be delivered? Or do I go the even-more-of-a-cop-out route and give an online gift card that can be delivered by email? Services like Amazon have made gift-giving easier, since they let you ship things directly to the recipient, but they don't allow for things like handmade gifts, local items, gifting beer (which I've wanted to do but alcohol can't be delivered by mail in many US states) or including a handwritten card. Then if I do decide to ship something across the Atlantic there's always the fear that, regardless of how early I send it, it won't arrive in time (or, more likely, panic when I send it far too late).

I know this is the part of the post where I'm supposed to turn it around and say something like, "But I'm looking on the bright side and everything is great!" Although this is to a certain extent true and I am looking forward to the holidays, I also don't want to minimize the impact of the points I've just mentioned, especially missing family. The fact of the matter is that, as long as I live in Germany, the holidays are never going to be as (relatively) simple as they would have been otherwise. When I lived in the US, visiting family for Christmas was a given. Now, with prohibitive travel costs, effort, and the need to take more time away in order to make the trip worth it, visiting family isn't a given anymore and the decision can't be made lightly. Although I enjoy spending the holidays with my German family, without my American family here it feels like something is missing.

If you're an expat, how do you handle the holidays? Are there any hardships that you experience that I haven't mentioned? Let me know in the comments!

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