Turkey sandwiches on the beach and decorative cruises: How to spend Christmas abroad

Spending Christmas abroad? Digital nomads and expats share tips for getting in the festive spirit.
Spending Christmas abroad? Digital nomads and expats share tips for getting in the festive spirit.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Mark Baker
By Lottie Limb

Christmas is a bright spot in the calendar - but off-limits for international travel as far as many Europeans are concerned.

Traditionally, it’s a time when the world contracts to home and hearth. It’s an escape from ‘normal’ life, revolving around family and good food in whatever forms they take.

But for others, the quiet days between 25 December and New Year are the best time to let their wanderlust run free.

As I’m spending Christmas abroad for the first time this year - a Brit in Australia - I asked online communities of digital nomads, expats and travel lovers for advice.

Here are their thoughts and tips on handling the precious, exhausting, magical and maddening glitter ball of Christmas.

Is it best to keep up traditions or embrace the alternative?

For those accustomed to celebrating Christmas at home, this seems to be the essential question. There’s no right answer of course, but there are a whole range of experiences.

Nina Clapperton, a full time digital nomad from Toronto, has spent the last five Christmases alone - and abroad whenever possible.

“I find it best to go whole hog into the culture you're in,” she says. “When I was in New Zealand, I did a fish fry on the beach. In Germany, I attended three Christmas markets in a day.”

Nina Clapperton
Digital nomad Nina has enjoyed Christmas in many places, including in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, and a Berlin Chrismtas market.Nina Clapperton

The 27-year-old blogger still enjoys being a part of family gatherings via FaceTime. Her family put a Santa hat on top of the iPad so she can appear in the grandkids’ photo.

“For me, Christmas is just too much. There's a tonne of pressure at big family functions,” adds Nina.

“I find even the notion of ‘have to’ with traditions kind of claustrophobic. Getting to change it up every year, having no expectations, and letting myself do what I want - not what others want - has been excellent. I finally enjoy Christmas again!”

Summer Rylander, a travel writer living in Nuremberg, is another frequent festive flyer. She has been jetting off with her husband around 23-25 December every year since 2017.

What's the point of travelling elsewhere if you're going to spend the whole time trying to recreate the feeling of being at home for the holiday?

“As far as traditions go, I say embrace the unconventional,” Summer responds. “What's the point of travelling elsewhere if you're going to spend the whole time trying to recreate the feeling of being at home for the holiday? Enjoy doing something different!”

Portia Jones, also a travel journalist, has spent the big day in Australia before where she “embraced the weirdness of Christmas on the beach eating a turkey sandwich.”

This sums up the approach of many holiday-makers: reluctant to detract from the adventure, but unwilling to leave Christmas entirely unmarked.

How can you keep the Christmas spirit alive on holiday?

Lin De Leeuwerk
Lin De Leeuwerk's children enjoy the festive decorations in Bangkok.Lin De Leeuwerk

Expats were notably keener to keep more traditional trimmings. Lin De Leeuwerk moved from Kyoto to Bangkok with her family a year ago and they are putting up the same decorations: “the same tiny Christmas tree with the same ornaments, the same advent calendar, the same candles!”

Food and drink are key ways to add some festive detail to your day if you wish, creating a little portal to home.

“Music, the smell of freshly baked cookies, gingerbread latte, mulled wine… just like at home in Germany,” reminisces Christina Gawe, a TV reporter and cafe owner in Bangkok.

She also loves the “tropical variety” the city has to offer, including mulled wine on ice and gingerbread men and women in bikini outfits.

“I connect through the arts,” says Betsy Palmerston, who initially flew to Thailand to escape the cold winters in Toronto, and ended up staying after COVID hit.

“I sing in a choir that does a super traditional English carol service. I listen to Christmas music at home. I watch all the usual suspect films.

“And if I really need to feel cold to get in the holiday spirit, well, there's always the mall,” she jokes.

Mary Chong
A cruise passenger decorates their cabin door.Mary Chong

Canadian travel writer Mary Chong is drawn to Caribbean cruises over Christmas and has a tip to make the accommodation more homely.

“We've seen many cruisers decorate the exterior of their stateroom doors for the holidays,” she explains. “You can easily hang things on the metal door and interior walls with magnetic clips.”

How do different countries celebrate Christmas?

Being a well-seasoned traveller gives you some fascinating insights into how other countries and cultures do it.

As Thailand is a Buddhist country, Christmas is primarily a commercial affair - with extravagant decorations at shopping centres and festive five-star hotel events. A resident since 2005, Christina has grown to love the blend between wintry European traditions and the warm Asian version.

Megan Eaves-Egenes, who lives in London, has spent many Christmases abroad, believing “it’s a fab way to use an otherwise wasted automatic vacation period.”

“I like going to places that don't have a western Christian Christmas tradition, so either orthodox or non-Christian, because everything is open,” she says. “Spending Christmas Eve watching the Nutcracker on stage in St Petersburg remains a life highlight, as was visiting the Hagia Sophia on Christmas Day.”

Fredy Builes/REUTERS
A child carries a sparkler during celebrations to mark Dia de las Velitas, or Candle Day, at the neighborhood of Belen in Bogota.Fredy Builes/REUTERS

For some people, travelling to even more festive places is part of the appeal. Having watched the “fabulous” build up to the holiday season while living in both countries, writer Liz Warkentin concludes that “no one does Christmas as well as they do in Germany and Austria.”

But she has also enjoyed learning about new traditions elsewhere. In Colombia, Liz observed Día de las velitas (Day of the Little Candles) on 7 December. People place candles outside their homes in honour of the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Conception that the Catholic Church dates to the following day.

“It was very pretty and really enchanting,” she recalls.

All who celebrate have their own unique approach to Christmas. And it’s a good time to remember that all who travel have their own reasons for doing so too; some extra goodwill never goes amiss.