How Americans Celebrate the Holidays Abroad

How Americans Celebrate the Holidays Abroad

What traditions do you follow for winter holidays? How would you celebrate if the friend, foods, and events you were used to weren’t around? Even in the U.S., Brett and I love participating in Jolabokaflod, the Icelandic tradition of exchanging and reading books on Christmas. These Americans share the unique ways they spend Christmas, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s in countries around the world.

Christmas in Spain: We Three Kings

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Cepee Tabibian lives in Malaga and celebrates Christmas with her Spanish partner and their family. She says that Christmas Eve is the day of family festivities, and that those are not that different from how Americans spend Christmas, with food and (some) gift-giving. What’s different in Spain is that the festivities continue on January 6th for Dia de los Reyes Magos, a celebration of the Three Wise Men. It’s a big deal, especially for children, because that’s when they open most of their gifts. This is also when you eat the Roscon de Reyes, a yummy king cake that has a king figurine and/or bean hidden inside.

Maria DiCicco is a part-time resident of Zaragoza, Spain, and she brings most of her traditions from home. She even packs cookie and brownie mixes since local confections aren’t as sweet. (She’s not as impressed as Cepee is with the Roscon de Reyes!) However, Maria loves that there’s a German-style Christmas market right outside her front door that gets her family in the Christmas spirit with roasted chestnuts, mulled wine, and traditional toymakers alongside heaps of delicious Spanish treats like chorizo and churros. 

At the Christmas market you can visit Papa Noel (aka Santa), but more interestingly, you may also get to meet the Three Kings: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar. These wise men sit upon three thrones in the center of the square, where children can meet with their favorite and sit upon their laps, just like Santa. The kings bring gifts and candies to children after the holidays on January 6th, stuffed into the shoes that the little ones put out the evening before. For families, it’s one last hurrah (and one more great big feast) before the holiday season is officially over.

Christmas in Japan: Romantic Dates

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Anne Sutherland says that while Christianity is a minority religion in Japan, Christmas is popular for decorating, exchanging gifts, and spending time with loved ones. In fact, Christmas Eve is a romantic occasion, almost like Valentine’s Day, where couples have candlelit dinners, exchange gifts, and participate in cozy dates like ice skating.

Christmas in Japan: Traditions from Home

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Photo Credit: Stephen Lyman.

Author Stephen Lyman decorates a corner of his small apartment for Christmas. There’s no room for a full-sized tree, but this year he did get a small portrait of a tree from a florist down in Kagoshima (made with fresh pine branches). His family hangs stockings to stuff on Christmas morning. They listen to Christmas music, watch Christmas movies, and open presents on Christmas morning before enjoying lamb and traditional side dishes like mashed potatoes and green beans.

He confirms Anne’s experience of Christmassy dates and says his city of Fukuoka has four German-style Christmas markets.

Christmas in Japan: Seasonal Fruit

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Photo Credit: Bethany Nakamura.

Bethany Nakamura has a unique tradition, thanks to her husband’s job managing kiwi orchards in Ehime prefecture, Shikoku. She says that it’s pretty cold here even though her climate is described as Mediterranean. Houses don’t usually have insulation, so they stay warm by using a special kind of table called a kotatsu, which has a space heater installed on the bottom side of the table, and a skirt to keep the warm air inside. Families spend their evenings and eat dinner with their legs under the table. They often make nabe soup for dinner and drink hot tea, while they enjoy their kiwis.

Christmas in Japan: Famous Fried Chicken

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You can’t talk about spending Christmas in Japan without mentioning the country’s unique food traditions, largely centered around southern fried chicken! Stephen says that the story goes that years ago, the Japanese branch of KFC ran a very successful marketing campaign on Christmas, and it stuck. Now,

people reserve their family buckets of KFC weeks in advance for their Christmas dinner. He adds, “A few Decembers ago, I caved into curiosity and ordered the special set myself. I have to admit it was a delicious and memorable Christmas feast!”

While Matt Heron misses aspects of Christmas in Canada, like cutting down a Christmas tree and having a family gathering with presents, he loves the Japanese tradition of family lunch with fried chicken, pizza and strawberry shortcake.

Alex Evans in Hiroshima notes that convenience stores like Lawson, 7-11, and Family Mart even have Christmas Catalogs where you can special order cake and fried chicken in advance!

Croatia and Montenegro: Two Christmases in One

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Photo Credit: Old Town Explorer.

Jennifer Jirak spent last Christmas in Trogir, Croatia. She says that for the entire month of December, the historic old town square was transformed into an intimate Christmas festival with daily food and drinks, weekly concerts, and traditional cooking demonstrations.

After the first of the year, she transferred to Herceg Novi, Montenegro and discovered that she could spend another Christmas with the locals because Orthodox Christmas is celebrated in early January. To celebrate, they had a large fire in the square while sharing food and drink. 

This year, she’s in Kotor, Montenegro spending “December Christmas” with the locals. They have two-month-long Winter Fest that started on December 1 and ends on February 3 with decorated kiosks selling food and drinks along the waterfront and weekly concerts on two different stages. 

She’s found that, while many Americans spend the holidays at home with friends and family, most Europeans (or at least Croatians and Montenegrins) spend them out and about with members of the community. Given that she and her husband are traveling full-time and away from friends and family, it’s been a very welcome surprise for them.

Christmas in France: Fancy Food & Advent Calendars

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Photo Credit: Lyon Wine Tastings.

Caroline Conner says that Christmas in France is all about family. “We gather and enjoy a meal on the 24th that includes our bûche de nöel, which can be a traditional homemade chocolate Christmas log or a fancy confection from a patisserie.” She says that a typical French Christmas meal could even include oysters, caviar, foie gras, and Champagne: ooh la la! Just like in the States, people put up Christmas trees and open presents on Christmas morning, followed by a big lunch. 

Her favorite difference between France and the U.S. is that France is obsessed with advent calendars! They come in a wide range of products way beyond chocolate, like wine, tea, and LEGO. She says she even saw an advent calendar of mustards this year.

Christmas in Mexico: Nativities & Not-So-Silent Nights

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Photo Credit: Cheapest Destinations Blog.

At first, Shelley Marmor was missing snow and her family, but took comfort in familiar things like decorating with poinsettias and singing carols. Over time, she was able to share her customs with people she met in Oaxaca while learning local traditions. She says that life there revolves around colorful community events and religious ceremonies like the nativity (nacimiento).

Tim Leffel doesn’t find Christmas in Mexico to be nearly as different from the U.S. as it was when he lived in Turkey or South Korea, owing to the fact that most people in the country are Catholic. He says that—like in Spain—kids receive gifts on Three Kings Day, but that the biggest difference is in Christmas Eve celebrations. Families throw raucous parties until the wee hours and then sleep in on Christmas day.

Christmas in Australia: Too Summery

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Nomads Brent and Michael’s Christmases around the world have ranged from a homey pandemic Christmas in Puerto Vallarta, to a friendly potluck in Croatia, to a dazzling holiday among incredible London storefronts like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason.

Now in Australia, they miss those countries that really get into the Christmas spirit and say that the holiday there is much more low-key. They say it’s the start of summer vacation, so locals are at the beach rather than strolling Christmas markets or sipping hot chocolate. The long days also don’t encourage people to hang lights, and the hot weather just generally keeps it from feeling like Christmas.

They’ve found a workaround though: a local cruise around New Zealand promises a festive time, with holiday decorations and Christmas music.

Chanukah in Australia: Finding a Temple Home

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Lanie van der Horst spent her first Chanukah on the Sunshine Coast in Australia far from a large Jewish population, so she packed supplies to celebrate, like her menorah, candles, and a few dreidels for the kids. 

Now, as a member of a temple in Brisbane, she has many friends to celebrate with and resources for chocolate coins and dreidels. Chabad puts up large menorahs there, and she attended a Chanukah dinner at her temple along with Chanukah in the City. She says they enjoy sharing traditional foods like latkes and jelly donuts with friends and family, and that her daughter has learned to play “The Dreidel Song” on her flute.

Christmas in Georgia: O New Year’s Tree

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Maggie Turansky has lived in a number of countries but was most surprised spending Christmas in the Republic of Georgia. Since most residents are Orthodox Christians, they designate Christmas as January 7th, so many expats celebrate together on December 25th.

She says that even in January, Christmas celebrations are minor, and most festivities revolve around New Year’s Eve instead: they even refer to New Year’s decorations and New Year’s trees! Maggie says families cook massive New Year’s feasts for each other with traditional foods like a chilled chicken dish in walnut sauce called satsivi before gathering on the streets as the clock approaches midnight. Fireworks are everywhere—both personal fireworks and official city displays—and the atmosphere is chaotic, loud, and incredibly energetic.

Even having lived in so many countries, Maggie says there’s nothing quite like New Year’s Eve in Georgia!

New Year’s in South Korea: Sunrise Magic

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Photo Credit: Duffel Bag Spouse.

Stacey Peters has lived in South Korea on and off since childhood, and one of her favorite holiday traditions is celebrating the New Year in Pohang—a quaint seaside village just a few hours from her home in Daegu. Every New Year’s Eve, she embarks on a two-hour drive in the middle of the night, long before sunrise, navigating some of Korea’s most winding and dimly lit roads. Her destination is Homigot Sunrise Plaza, where the Hand of Harmony sculpture sits on the sea’s edge. She says that for two years straight, she’s been the singular foreigner witnessing the magic of a simple sunrise.

This isn’t a party or your typical New Year’s celebration—far from it. The festival has a laid-back vibe, drawing in hundreds of people hoping to start the new year with an introspective mindset, rather than waking up from a night of revelry. The festival culminates with the sun bursting through clouds, casting a spectrum of colors over the landscape. It illuminates the Hand of Harmony and a few seabirds that love to be the center of attention. After the oohs and ahs, the plaza erupts with chatter and music. The event wraps up with a bowl of Tteokguk—a symbolic soup promising good fortune and prosperity for the New Year.

Thailand: The True Meaning of Christmas

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Subprasom / Shutterstock.

Mal James says that Christmas celebrations in Bangkok combine Western and local customs. While Thailand predominantly observes Buddhist traditions, Christmas is marked with spectacular displays of lights and decorations, and even the occasional Santa Claus. However, he says the essence of Thai culture shines through in the local approach to the holiday, which has an emphasis on togetherness and generosity. Mal says, “I believe that’s in line with the core values of Christmas.” 

The most fascinating thing to him as someone who’s anti consumerism is that Christmas in this Buddhist country is less about the commercial aspects of the holiday and more about the joy of sharing and community.

Matthew Smith agrees, saying that the most meaningful celebrations are not about sharing the essence of the holiday like love and the spirit of togetherness. He also notes the fun and novelty of celebrations there, where Santa arrives on an elephant and Christmas markets serve spicy mango rice instead of gingerbread pudding.

In addition to the Thai version of Christmas, he recommends the local New Year’s holiday, Loi Krathong, when the sky bursts with floating lanterns carrying wishes and prayers into the night. He says it’s a beautiful blend of traditions and a Christmas he’ll never forget.

Christmas in Costa Rica: ‘Tis the (Dry) Season

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Photo Credit: Central America Fishing.

Chris Atkins and his wife moved from the Midwest to Costa Rica and combine both cultures at Christmastime. He says that because Costa Rica is only starting to celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving as a result of Americans’ influence, there’s nothing to stop Ticos from starting Christmas celebrations in mid September!

He says you’ll start seeing Christmas items in stores as early as September, and that it reaches a fever pitch by November. There are many similar traditions with the U.S. like decorating your house with lights, visiting Santa at the mall, and cutting down a fresh Christmas tree. One big difference is that in December Costa Rica transitions from rainy season to dry season, so even the weather gets in on the act with colder temps and strong winds that give it a colder holiday feel—despite living in the tropics.

Christmas in Italy: Eat, Drink, & Be Merry

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Nashville musicians Matt Walker & Zeneba Bowers relocated to Italy in 2019. After decades of elaborate classical Christmas performances, the pair now plays intimate church gatherings in quaint towns north of Rome. On Christmas Eve, they perform at a local retirement home, for those who can’t get out to be with their families at this time. 

The lighter schedule gives them plenty of time to explore Italy, window shopping and checking out each town’s unique Christmas decorations. Their holiday meal plans have changed, too. Like the Italians do, they source local specialties for their celebration, like a fabulous bottle of wine from an organic vineyard they perform at frequently in Tuscany, or a panettone made exclusively by a local bakery using 70-year-old mother yeast, chestnuts, and dark chocolate, then soaked in rum.

Christmas on the Road: It’s the Small Things

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Kelli Lovett and her husband travel full time by van or sailboat and almost always spend Christmas abroad. They bring their Christmas spirit along with them, starting with holiday music on Spotify and a Christmas Eve tradition of pizza and Christmas movies. 

Living on the road also offers opportunities for new ways to celebrate in local festivities like Christmas markets in Europe, quirky traditions like night of the radishes in Oaxaca, or idiosyncrasies like KFC on Christmas day in Japan. They’ve also downsized some of their holiday habits to fit with life in small spaces, like sharing experiences and swapping small or consumable gifts, and decorating a miniature tree with a little Santa that travels with them.

Christmas in Guatemala: Tamales & Fireworks

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When Iva first moved to Guatemala from Canada, she was anxious to experience my first Christmas without snow and in a completely different culture. Although she was sure what to expect, she soon found out that Christmas in Guatemala was beyond amazing. 

She says they celebrate on Christmas Eve, and at the stroke of midnight, fireworks go off all around town and every town around the lake she lives on for over an hour. Tamales are the traditional meal on Christmas, and Guatemalans from many towns come to the lake where she lives to have picnics and celebrate Christmas there. There are random parades all month long, and Santas everywhere, and she describes the vibe as “fun and full of energy.” 

The one thing that struck her as odd? There isn’t a Christmas card to be found anywhere! But does she miss the snow? Nope!

Christmas in Germany: It’s the Markets, Natürlich

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Kristin Montgomery has taught in international schools in Spain, Switzerland, Singapore, Colombia, and now Stuttgart, Germany. As you might imagine in Germany, she says Christmas is about the Christmas markets and that there are outdoor markets in nearly every town and city where you’ll find handmade goods and glühwein (or alcohol-free kinderpunsch). At home, Germans make loads of Christmas cookies like Zimtsterne, her favorite cinnamon stars with white icing. 

She says that because Germans are more energy conscious, you won’t find many Christmas lights outside of the markets. Interestingly, she says Stuttgart also switched from ice skating to roller skating to save on spending and care for the environment.

As for actual Christmas celebrations, they are quiet, family affairs for immediate family. Both December 25 and December 26 are official holidays. This means that everything is closed, including grocery stores, so planning ahead is essential. 

Christmas in the Philippines: Life’s a Beach

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Stephanie Vollmer has spent the holidays in South Korea, Germany, and the Philippines. She says Christmas is huge in the Philippines, with Christmas light displays and nativity scenes, Christmas music in the stores, and even kids caroling in the streets. On Christmas, they attend church in the morning followed by a big meal on the beach with friends and family. They’ll rent a gazebo there and enjoy the tropical weather. 

She says her family will sing Karaoke together throughout the day and listen to Christmas music while eating delicious seafood—from shrimp to curried crabs to pancit and lumpia.

Christmas in Iceland: How Many Santa Clauses?

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Ann Peters keeps American traditions alive while living in Iceland. Each year, she and her husband make a date of heading out to a designated forestry area to pick out their Christmas tree, cut it down, and then enjoy the local Christmas market with hot chocolate in hand. Afterwards, they decorate the tree to Bing Crosby music and bake cookies while watching Christmas movies, which she says feels like living in a Hallmark movie. (Not to mention the high probability of a white Christmas!)

Iceland celebrates on Christmas Eve, and Ann joins her Icelandic husband in his local traditions: visiting a highland hot spring or ice cave, then telling stories about the 13 Santa Clauses, their troll parents, and the big black cat while making and eating a delicious dinner of smoked leg of lamb with local sides like sugared potatoes. On Christmas Day, she takes her turn with an American spread of prime rib or turkey. 

She adds a special note about New Year’s Eve: because it’s the only time of the year you’re allowed to buy and set off fireworks, everyone does, and it’s insane!

Christmas in the U.K.: Festive in Pockets

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Photo Credit: Alexey Fedorenko / Shutterstock.

For Tim Lee, Christmas means spending time with his loved ones, but last year he had to spend the holiday alone in London. He wasn’t alone for long, after getting involved with a local charity and serving next to the Queen of the North, Sophie Turner herself!

To fully get in the holiday mood, he hopped on a famous double-decker bus and roamed Oxford Street and Regent Street to see the dazzling Christmas lights. He says that the neighborhood where he stayed, Kingston upon Thames, was much less festive. Only a few houses displayed Christmas decorations, and none were playing Christmas music.

His last big surprise came from a shutdown of services for the holidays, including the public transportation that would have taken him to a friend’s party, and trash collection, which led to bags lining the streets. He says the sight was a far cry from the clean and festive imagery often associated with Christmas.

Christmas in Brazil: Sunny & 79°

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Photo Credit: Wet Nose Escapades.

Gigi Chow is spending Christmas in Rio de Janeiro and will be working on her tan on Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches, with pleasant weather in the high 70s/low80s. On Christmas Eve, she and her husband will be filling their bellies at a local rodízio, an all-you-can-eat Brazilian buffet that serves quality grilled meats (like their famous picanha steak) and sides (like the hearty feijoada black bean stew).

As for her traveling pups, Roger Wellington and Penny Rose, she’ll be taking them to dog-friendly malls like Rio Sul and Botafogo Praia, where they have grandiose holiday decorations on every floor. 

Christmas in Turkey: A Do-It-Yourself Affair

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Kimberly McCauley says that moving to Turkey, where they don’t celebrate Christmas, made her so sad. She loved doing the Santa thing and going to church and says that Christmas and Thanksgiving have always been her favorite holidays.

She makes do by spending the holiday with other expats who also miss the joy of Christmas, and she invited locals to show them why it’s such a special occasion. They love wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, having a gift exchange, and watching cheesy Christmas movies.

Hanukkah in Ireland: Finding the Pot of Gelt

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In order to celebrate Hanukkah in Ireland last year, Amber Haggerty gathered together a large group of family and friends for dinner. They made a mix of traditional and not-so-traditional foods to share, potluck style. There were sweet and savory kugels, matzo ball soup, and of course, latkes. Since Ireland is famous for its potatoes, they made homemade latkes using spuds from the local farmers market. She notes that sour cream was easy to find, but she had to search high and low for applesauce.

She says, “Ireland is a predominantly Christian country with a very small Jewish population, so the friends we invited were eager to learn about and celebrate Hanukkah with us. Overall, it was really fun to share the experience with friends in Ireland and explain some Hanukkah traditions!”

Holidays in Israel: Miracles All Around Us

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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Lauren Gumport is the VP of Communications at Faye Travel Insurance, and she’s been living in Tel Aviv for eight years. As an expat living abroad, she likes to keep holiday traditions alive, so each year she gathers 40 people in her apartment for a huge Thanksgiving celebration. 

She says that taking the train to Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas is incredible. In the old city you can find chanukiahs (the modern Israeli term for menorahs) lighting up window sills, and if you head to the Christian and Armenian quarters, you’ll find Christmas trees and festive decor.

Over on our Expatsi TikTok channel, Jen dives into some of our favorite non-American holiday traditions:

@expatsi Do you wonder what the holidays are like when you move abroad? #immigrant #expat #digitalnomad ♬ original sound – Jen from Expatsi

Jen Barnett Expatsi headshot
Co-founder at Expatsi | Website | + posts

Jen Barnett is an expat influencer and co-founder of Expatsi, a company that's helped thousands of Americans on their moving abroad journeys. She created the Expatsi Test, an assessment that recommends countries for aspiring emigrants based on lifestyle data. Jen has an MBA from Emory University with concentrations in marketing and innovation. She's written for BusinessWeek, Health, Cooking Light, and Southern Living. Prior to Expatsi, she created Freshfully and Bottle & Bone—two businesses in the local food space—and spoke at TEDx on being brave. She's moving to Mexico in 2024, along with her husband and co-founder Brett, pitbull mix Squiggy, and three rotten cats. How can she help you move abroad?

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Jen Barnett Expatsi headshot
Co-founder at Expatsi | Website | + posts

Jen Barnett is an expat influencer and co-founder of Expatsi, a company that's helped thousands of Americans on their moving abroad journeys. She created the Expatsi Test, an assessment that recommends countries for aspiring emigrants based on lifestyle data. Jen has an MBA from Emory University with concentrations in marketing and innovation. She's written for BusinessWeek, Health, Cooking Light, and Southern Living. Prior to Expatsi, she created Freshfully and Bottle & Bone—two businesses in the local food space—and spoke at TEDx on being brave. She's moving to Mexico in 2024, along with her husband and co-founder Brett, pitbull mix Squiggy, and three rotten cats. How can she help you move abroad?