Being an Expat Family During the Holiday Season; Keeping The Holiday Spirit Alive While Living Abroad
Everyone has certain times of year that they love and certain ones they could do without, but when you’re an expat family and living half a world away from family and friends, those feelings can collide.
I don’t think I ever thought about it much before I had my son, but now there is a season that I kinda dread as an expat.
The fall and holiday season.
Maybe if I lived in a different country that still had many of the same traditions and opportunities it wouldn’t feel so depressing, but here in Hong Kong it is difficult sometimes. You see, I have always dreamed of going to the local apple orchards and pumpkin farms in September/ October with my family. Drinking some warm apple cider after chasing my son through the newest corn maze. And then riding in the wagon to go pick the best apples of the year.
Then would come Halloween and we would go to the local churches and schools for Trunk-or-treat and then on Halloween night we would go trick-or-treating to the different houses. My son would be a cute costume and I would sneak some of my favorite candies out of his bucket (shhh don’t tell!).
Next slips in Thanksgiving, and people are starting to shop for Christmas while planning their large Thanksgiving meals. My favorite would be the dark meat of the turkey, some cranberry sauce (from the can of course lol), and the pies. Ooh and the pumpkin rolls! I may not be into pumpkin spice lattes and all that, but I love all the pumpkin and apple deserts of Thanksgiving.
Finally comes December with peppermint everything! Oh man I so miss Chick-fil-a’s peppermint chocolate chip milkshakes in December. I guess you could say that’s my equivalent to everyone else’s pumpkin spice lattes lol.
Everyone decorates their yards, houses and businesses and you drive around looking at Christmas lights while sipping hot cocoa from a thermos and singing Christmas carols. We’d then make a big mess in the kitchen making cookies together. And while we’d try and use the cookie cutters, in the end our cookies would come out as delicious blobs that we all laugh about. I’ve also always dreamed of going and picking our own live Christmas tree and cutting it down together. I’m mostly from Florida, so snow isn’t a part of my Christmas dreams lol.
Now that I write this I see a lot has to do with food lol. But I guess food is a large part of defining everyone’s cultures and traditions. As an expat, I can still recreate a lot of the those food aspects, but the overall feeling to those 3-4 months isn’t the same. However, the effort and fellowship with friends is completely worth trying.
Sometimes though, I find myself still dreaming of my picture perfect family experiences the last three months of the year. It’s made even more poignant with all the friends and family posting their “picture perfect” holiday moments with their kids. It can make it hard to see the amazing adventure we’re on now. But we ARE still on an adventure and we ARE still making these family memories. They just don’t look the same… and I remind myself that’s not a bad thing.
Here’s what our holidays in Hong Kong have looked like so far…
Please share with others!
Fall Harvest Time
While I still dream of going apple and pumpkin picking and getting lost in corn mazes, we were still able to go trick-or-treating! Boogie wore the same sea turtle costume from the year before (because he’s so dang cute in it!) and one of the villages on South Lantau called Tong Fuk put together an event for everyone that wanted to participate. Those that weren’t able or wanting to have their house be a candy stop instead brought some food to share during the village green pre-party. They even designed elaborate maps to guide everyone through the intricate pathways through the village and included routes specially for the older kids who could walk further. As for the adults… there were stops for us to have some adult only snacks and drinks too ;p.
I absolutely loved this trick-or-treating experience and it was our second time participating. This year of course Boogie could walk and even learned how to grab the candy himself! I would say in some ways, this experience is even better than what happens back home, because it has a real community feel.
Want to experience Halloween in Hong Kong too? Here’s a video of the event this year!
In other places in Hong Kong, you have some smaller community festivals and I know that in one apartment high rise they all line up along the path between between the buildings and kids walk from person to person to go their trick or treating. So there are still ways if you search for them!
As for the pumpkins… You can buy them from the supermarkets in various colors, shapes, and sizes (because did you know most of the world eats them like any other squash and not a dessert?! The horrors! ;p). But I decided not to spend the money as they are crazy expensive here and we didn’t have much time together to do it anyway. Next year though, I really do want to try it with Boogie. I think he’ll enjoy it more at 2.5 vs 1.5.
Thanksgiving in Hong Kong
As for Thanksgiving… this year wasn’t much of anything. My school uses a Canadian curriculum so the parents did make a turkey for Canadian Thanksgiving (early October) and I got a bite, but otherwise Thanksgiving was low key for us. Allen was working most Saturdays and we are paying off debts so again I didn’t want to spend the money. However, it was actually the first Thanksgiving here we didn’t celebrate. Thankfully, an American friend from school brought me some leftovers… can you say hello sweet potato casserole!
The first two Thanksgivings we actually spent at a neighbor’s and parents from my school along with some other American colleagues. I was thankful for the invite the second year because that was supposed to be my due date with my Angel baby. So it was good to be surrounded by my friends. And the third year we had it at our place.
I loved that year where we piled all our closest friends and their families into the ground floor of our home and made not one, but two turkeys! The third year was Boogie’s and my friend’s baby’s first Thanksgiving and it was so cute watching them have their first taste of potatoes and pie and then watch them play on the floor together with our other best friend’s kids until it well past the kid’s bedtimes. It wasn’t on Thanksgiving itself, but the memories and time with friends are priceless. That’s what Thanksgiving is really about right?
Christmas in Hong Kong
Christmas has been a bit different. We didn’t really do much for Christmas until Boogie came along. The first Christmas we actually visited both our mothers since we’d been gone almost a year at that point. The second Christmas we had JUST moved into our new house so we didn’t do any decorating or gifting. Instead we had a big gathering of friends for a Christmas/ house warming party. That’s about all my pregnant self could manage after all the cleaning, packing, and unpacking that month lol.
Christmas of 2017 was the first year we bought a tree (fake because real ones are astronomical and sometimes difficult to get here) and had a proper Christmas morning. We actually bought our tree and all the decorations (including one ornament to represent each of us, mom, dad, Boogie, our helper Theresa, and the dogs) from the grocery store lol! There are other places with better decorations throughout Hong Kong, but I wanted to keep it simple and cost effective. Which was perfect because this last Christmas Boogie knocked our little 5 foot tree over twice and tore all the ball ornaments off the tree because he thought they were balls you throw lol! They were all plastic or fabric. Maybe not the most eco-friendly, but definitely toddler friendly!
As for driving around and looking at Christmas lights, that isn’t really effective here, but there are light displays. Many buildings will have lights on display so you could walk around TST area and find an abundance of light displays and even light shows along the harbor. Then several of the malls host holiday displays and even a Santa! But beware some of these cost money and you have to book in advance. Others you just need to deal with the crowds.
In 2017, we went to Pacific Place for their fun interactive display. The only cost was a donation to get a picture made. I wanted to see more this year, but we ran out of time and then I got sick. We did however walk along the TST harbor with some friends on Christmas eve and seen all those lights and building displays… Boogie was unimpressed… oh well, maybe next year!
What about the cookies you ask?
Well… good question, you know what’s important! Last year, our first Christmas with Boogie, we invite our best friends over. They have two young children as well and we had a lovely time making cookies and, of course, eating them too. We had a dinner together and really just enjoyed our time as one family, because that’s what we are… One big family. A family of choice.
This year they had already planned something else for Christmas day so we met and did TST on Christmas eve. However, another good friend of mine has a son only 3 months younger than Boogie. And she invited us all to her church’s children’s Christmas party where we got to roll out cookie dough, use cookie cutters, and even add toppings before they baked them for us and we took them home! Not that many made it home…
How I try to think during the holidays as an expat now…
So while I do think about the holiday season with a little remorse and jealousy at times. I have still managed to make my life here fulfilling. We may not drive around drinking hot cocoa, but we still made some and drank it together while watching White Christmas (a yearly tradition Netflix has made possible to keep up with). We may not get great candy (marshmallows are mostly what we ate lol) and have big parties, but we still get to have the experience of dressing up and running around our version of a neighborhood. Feeling that excitement and creating those memories. And while we may not have a big turkey and some pie every year, it’s more about being with family and friends and actually being grateful.
As Daniel Tiger says…. “Sometimes you feel two feelings at the same time, and that’s ok!”. Daniel Tiger, man he’s smart lol.
Wherever you are in the world, whether at home and doing all the normal traditions, traveling full time with only your spouse and kids, or living as an expat half way around the world, there will always be ways to make the holiday traditions and feelings a reality. It may not perfectly fit what you have pictured in your head, but if you let the moment take over, you may find that these moments are just as sweet, or even sweeter.