I have always been holiday obsessed. Whether it's getting dressed up for Halloween, stuffing my face with pie for Thanksgiving, decorating the tree for Christmas, making a mess with confetti for New Years, or treating myself to something special for my birthday, there are few things I love as much as the holiday season. But there are some things, and travel is one of those things. Which is why, when faced with the choice between staying on the road or returning home for the holidays, I have often chosen the road. Celebrating holidays on the road is far from easy; in fact, it's a sure-fire way to induce homesick and lonely brooding. But there is also something truly spectacular about the holidays abroad. The experiences I have had celebrating in India, Ghana, Ethiopia, Scotland, and the like are experiences that I will treasure for a lifetime. So if you are considering spending the holidays away from home this year, I'll be the last person to try and stop you. But I will recommend a few coping tools for the homesick traveler that might help you when those lonely traveler blues hit you.
Find the holiday spirit, wherever it may be
Part of the reason the holidays can be so lonesome for solo travelers is because it often feels like you are the only one celebrating. This is especially true if you are celebrating a holiday that is not native to the country you are in. Take Thanksgiving, for example. My first Thanksgiving away from home was when I was 18 years old. I was traveling in Ethiopia, where, obviously, they do not celebrate Thanksgiving. I was serving injera and wat at a soup kitchen in Addis Ababa bemoaning my first solo holiday when the couple next to me said they had a daughter living in Ethiopia who would be throwing a Thankgiving dinner party at her house. We exchanged emails and a few weeks later I found myself in a stranger's apartment surrounded by people I'd never met sharing in one of the most eclectic Thanksgiving feasts of my life.
It was different than any Thanksgiving I'd known. We lacked power, turkey, pie, and cranberries. But we made up for it in holiday spirit. Everyone in the room was thrilled to be celebrating, be it expats missing home or locals experiencing the holiday for the first time.
If you find yourself in a foreign country for the holidays, look for hubs of holiday spirit. This might be expat groups, hostels, or fellow travelers if you are celebrating a holiday unbeknownst to the locals. Or, for some of the more global holidays, you can seek out events in the local community and discover how the people in your host country choose to celebrate. For example, foreign Christmas markets are one of my absolute favorite holiday traditions now! Trust me, if you take the time to look, you can find holiday spirit anywhere.
Or make your own holiday spirit
Sometimes, there just doesn't seem to be any holiday spirit available. So what do you do? Make your own holiday spirit, of course! When 30 NYU students spent Halloween in Ghana, where no one celebrates Halloween, do you think we let it get us down? Absolutely not! We threw our own Halloween party. Being poor students in a country without "Spirit" shops, we set the rule that everyone had to come up with a costume from the items in their suitcase. And you know what? We had an epic night. I still think back to that evening as one of the best Halloween parties of my life. Second only, perhaps, to the murder mystery party we threw in Edinburgh when we felt a noticeable lack of Halloween spirit in our surroundings. If there's not enough holiday spirit for your liking, then it's time to conjure up some holiday cheer of your own.
Share your traditions with those around you
In the thread of creating your own holiday spirit, one of my favorite coping tools for homesick travelers who are having a rough time adjusting to holidays alone is to share our holiday traditions with the people around you. A big part of what makes the holidays so special for many of us are the traditions we attach to them. Sure, they'll look a little different when you try to recreate them around the world, but sharing your holiday traditions with your friends on the road can help you feel a little bit closer to home this holiday season.
When I was teaching in Ethiopia, I learned that Christmas there is a much more religious affair. Plus, they work on a different calendar, so they don't celebrate until January. I could have dwelt in my loneliness, but I chose instead to introduce the kids to what Christmas looks like in my hometown. We decorated a Christmas tree, sand carols, and drew pictures of gingerbread men. The children loved the day of festivities, and I felt a little cheerier having spent some time celebrating Christmas my way.
Sometimes, distraction is the best cure for the blues
While I do believe there are plenty of ways to enjoy the holidays wherever you are, sometimes the sadness is just going to be too much. Everything holiday-related will make you miss your family, friends, and traditions. It's inevitable and when it happens, it's time to turn to what I consider the last resort: distraction.
The more holidays I've spent abroad, the less I have turned to distraction to get through the homesick feelings. But there is a time and a place when the only effective coping tools for the homesick traveler are to distract yourself from what it is that is making you feel homesick and just have fun.
My first Christmas abroad (the one in Ethiopia) was by far the hardest solo holiday I have ever celebrated. It was on a weekend, so I had no work to distract me. There were no other volunteers at the school or travelers to celebrate (they were all at home). I remember crying for hours in my hotel room, longing for the smell of pine and taste of candy canes. Something had to be done.
I found ways to keep myself busy.
I spent Christmas Eve pampering myself a the spa where I lounged in the sauna and got my first ever massage. Then I spent Christmas day on a full-day horseback riding adventure in the Eucalyptus fields outside of Addis Ababa. It was an incredibly fun two days and there were multiple times where I forgot I was homesick at all! When it comes down to it, if you can't find the holiday spirit or don't have the energy to make it yourself, distraction can be your best friend.
Remember, you are never alone
The main reason we travelers get so homesick during the holidays is the feeling of loneliness. We see pictures on social media of all our family and friends enjoying the traditions we miss most while we sit alone in foreign internet cafes surrounded by unfamiliar faces. How could we not get homesick?
I remember waking up on my 19th birthday in India feeling incredibly alone. I had no dad to make me ebelskiver and serve it on the special red plate. I had no mom to make the white cake with caramel frosting I looked forward to every year. My friends would write on my Facebook wall, but no one would come to my party and help me celebrate with laughter and good cheer. I was alone.
That evening, everyone I had met in India showed up carting cakes, beers, birthday gifts, and good wishes. We spent the evening laughing, drinking, eating, and having a good time. The loneliness disappeared as I realized I may not have my traditional birthday, but I still had love, and when it comes to the holidays, that's really all that matters.
Five years later I was celebrating in Edinburgh. I was so nervous leading up to my birthday; I had lived in the country less than 6 months. I didn't expect anyone to show up to my birthday party and was hesitant to throw one. But my roommates encouraged me to live out my Harry Potter Party fantasy and next thing I know, not only was the apartment filled with people showering me with love, but I had one of the best birthdays of my life!
So, to every homesick traveler spending this holiday season alone, I have one thing left to say: remember, you are never alone. Look around, be open to new experiences, and you'll find a world of people eager to help you celebrate a holiday full of love.