guest post by Joy from joyashfordlewis.wordpress.com
Oceans away from those they love, expats around the world are bracing themselves for the holiday season. Aid workers in Cambodia. Diplomats in Peru. Military personnel in Turkey. The emotional roller coaster begins mid-November and ends sometime in January. Because no matter how much we love our adopted homes, the holidays evoke a bittersweet longing for HOME home.
If you have friends and family who live overseas, please don’t let their witty posts and festive photos fool you. You have not been replaced by pistachio baklava or handmade carpets. Seriously. You are loved and you are missed. In fact, you have the power to make their holiday season a whole lot sweeter.
Aside from mortgaging your home to buy a plane ticket, you may wonder how you could possibly help. I’m no expert, but I’ve been on the receiving end of long-distance holiday cheer for more than a decade. Here are just a few ways our friends and family have bent over backwards to make our season bright.
They invite us to their holiday parties. If that sounds a little cruel, consider that technology provides limitless options for long-distance communication. Let overseas friends and family know you want to include them in your celebration, and think creatively about how to make it happen. There’s a 100% chance they’ll feel loved.
- Host a live Skype/Facetime session during Thanksgiving dinner.
- Bring them along for Christmas caroling via Facetime
- Schedule a trans-continental holiday movie viewing, and communicate while you watch together via chat, text or video chat.
- Record and send a video Christmas greeting from the family or highlights from a holiday gathering. No need for anything fancy. Just some grainy footage of baby Freddy eating tinsel, Dad telling that story he’s told a million times and Great Aunt Bertha serving her notorious eggnog. It’s the little things… (For more creative ideas, try joyashfordlewis.wordpress.com)
They shrink-wrap Christmas cheer. Sort of. Nothing says “We miss you!” like an old-fashioned care package. I’ll never forget that rainy Istanbul afternoon when we first received Christmas in a box. Kneeling on our foyer’s tile floor, I attacked the packing tape with a butter knife. The aroma of cinnamon-spice permeated the room and flooded my mind with holiday memories. I tore through the box. Tissue paper flew left and right. My boys fought each other like cavemen for a peek at the loot. I remember their very first taste of candy cane. That Andes mint melting in my mouth. Christmas sprinkles. Cookie cutters. Bliss.
Not sure how to send a package overseas? No clue what to send? Ask the experts—your overseas friends. They may know country-specific postal requirements…and they’ll certainly know what kind of Christmas candy they like. If your finances are limited, try cramming some Christmas goodness into a padded mailing envelope. Or just send a Christmas card and a few candy canes. Bottom line: Holiday mail is awesome! (Click here for more practical tips and creative ideas).
They rescue us from land mines. Not literal landmines. Relational ones. And we’ve had some narrow escapes over the years. Consider this: while your loved one has been living overseas, things back home have changed. Marriages break up. People lose jobs. Family dynamics change. And your long distance loved ones won’t know unless you tell them. Your first impulse may be to “protect” them from sad or stressful news, but the not knowing often turns out to be more stressful than the news itself.
So before your clueless family member gets on Skype and embarrasses herself in surround-sound at the family Christmas gathering, give her a head’s up. Let her know that Uncle Wilbur has a new wife named Gigi who’s half his age. And that her favorite cousins are no longer on speaking terms. And that Grandpa might not remember who she is. Advance notice gives people time to process things emotionally and time to prepare themselves (and their kids) for communicating with sensitivity. Maybe then you won’t have to answer awkward questions during the family Christmas skype session, like “Where’s Aunt Mildred? And why is that girl with the booty shorts sitting on Uncle Wilbur’s lap?
They give us fair warning. I’m talking about expectations. Whether this is the first year your loved ones have been overseas or their 20th, it’s essential to clarify holiday hopes.
My in-laws do this well. They always plan a Christmas Skype session ahead of time. Each year. They don’t assume. That way we know it’s important to them, and we have the flexibility to plan around time differences and holiday events.
So…if you really, really want a video of your grandkids opening that gift you risked your life to buy them on Black Friday, or if Granny Gertrude wants a picture of your son wearing his hand-knitted purple Christmas sweater, give fair warning. Long distance communication is tricky enough. Add in holiday emotions and unspoken expectations, and you could end up with one holly jolly mess. A little good communication goes a long way.
They give us their ears. Not literally. (That would be weird.) I mean they ask good questions about our lives and really listen to the answers. What a gift! Living in a foreign context, it’s easy to feel misunderstood, forgotten, and alone. Especially during the holiday season.
This year, consider giving your overseas loved ones a gift that’s more awesome than a care package. Ask good questions (How do you plan to celebrate? Who will you celebrate with? What are you looking forward to about the holidays? What’s hard about living overseas during the holidays? Is there any way I can help brighten your Christmas?) And then listen. Really listen.
There’s no need to drown them with pity (“It must be depressing to celebrate Christmas in a country where they don’t sell Starbucks Christmas Blend.”) Or envy (“You’re so lucky–shopping in European markets while I’m getting trampled at Walmart.”) They just need to know you understand…or that you care enough to try.
They don’t gift-wrap guilt. It makes a terrible Christmas present. We’ve truly been blessed with friends and family who don’t “guilt us” during the holidays. Your loved ones don’t need help feeling awful for missing special family occasions. They do that well enough on their own. They need to know that you love them anyway.
Holiday “guilting” may be direct (“With you half-way across the world, Christmas is ruined.”) or slightly more subtle (“All of Betty Sue’s kids and grandkids celebrated Christmas together yesterday. Maybe we can do that sometime before I die. Speaking of which, I get these weird chest pains when I check your Instagram account.”
I’m not suggesting that you should bury your feelings in a pile of holiday cheer. I’m suggesting that you be emotionally honest in loving ways. Like when my dad says “We sure do miss you sweetheart!” and his voice gets all husky. Or when my mom affirms our decision not to travel home for Christmas, but admits that her arms ache to hug me. Honesty, not manipulation. So go ahead…serve up some sweet “We love you”’s and bittersweet “We miss you”’s. Just hold off on the heaping spoonful of guilt.
If you’re still reading at this point, it’s almost certain that you care deeply for someone who lives half-way across the world. On behalf of expats everywhere, let me say thank you. Thank you for caring. Thank you for not forgetting. And thank you for being the sweetness in a season of bittersweet.
Please comment below with your own suggestions for bringing holiday cheer to loved ones overseas.
Joy grew up in NC, but has spent the last 13 years of her life as a global nomad. Presently, she and her husband Jason call Istanbul home. Joy loves meeting people from different cultures and listening to their stories. She has embarrassed herself in multiple languages, (accidentally) home schooled her sons overseas, and discovered that faith in Jesus is truly a risk worth taking. In her free time, Joy blogs at joyashfordlewis.wordpress.com. She is also in the process of writing several multicultural children's books.