Holidays Overseas

Holidays for missionaries, or any expat, are an opportunity. We further adapt to our host life, or we cling to “back home.” In reality, we probably do a little of both.

Holidays remind us of family and friends more than any other time. We reminisce about childhood traditions – those special cookies Grandma makes or that one neighborhood always lit up with beautiful lights. We wonder which friends attended the Christmas Eve service at our church and think about parents and siblings over our holiday meal.

There’s nothing wrong with reminiscing and even missing loved ones and traditions. But over my years on the field, I’ve learned it’s important to balance between remembering “back home” and adopting customs from our “new home.” Clinging too tenaciously to our passport country prevents us from connecting on a deeper level to our host country.

So, how does that balance between “back home” and “new home” look? Here are a few of the ways we celebrate holidays on the mission field:

Keep or modify traditions, as possible.

My husband and I have always decorated for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. I’m not a fan of winter – the cold, the snow, the dreary lack of color – so Christmas decorations are a must in our home. We also love live trees and swore we’d never buy artificial.

In Ukraine, Orthodox Christmas is not celebrated until January 7. It is impossible to buy a live tree before the third week of December. After a few years of anti-climactic “day after Thanksgivings,” we finally caved and bought the artificial tree this year. November 24, 2017 was a magical day for our kids (and for me, honestly). The riot of Christmas color, lights, and sounds filled our house and kicked off the holiday season in full cheer.

Be flexible about when to celebrate.

December 25 is the Roman Catholic Christmas date. The Orthodox Church celebrates on January 7. In Ukraine, people celebrate primarily in January, although this year, the government marked December 25 as another official Christmas date.

Growing up in Ukraine, we celebrated some years on the 25th, sometimes on the 7th, and some years we picked a date in between. I’ve come to accept that when is not as important as making sure we celebrate together…at some point.

Stay connected to loved ones in both – or multiple – countries.

We call, Skype, or FaceTime with family in the U.S. and Finland every year. We value the connection with siblings, parents, grandparents and others. We can’t be together physically, but technology makes the world a smaller place these days. Our kids are growing up communicating on iPad, smartphone and laptop screens. When our 18-month old sees my phone, he yells out, “Bo!” (his cousin’s name) in sheer excitement.

We also value relationships here in Ukraine. Some years we celebrate the holidays just as a family, but sometimes we invite friends over to share in the festivities. When I was a missionary kid, a babushka (grandmother) from our church spent every holiday with us and became an adopted member of our family.

Embrace new traditions.

L’viv boasts a beautiful European-style Christmas market. Rows of tiny log stalls are lit up with bright lights. Smells of shish kabobs, french fries, baked goods, and mulled wine taunt passers-by. You can buy everything from street food to handmade ornaments to toilet paper with Putin’s face on it. Our family walks through the Christmas market as often as possible, enjoying this tradition that we never experienced in Indiana.


We also celebrate New Years more purposefully in our host country. Ukraine LOVES New Years. Friends and families gather to feast, laugh, sing and dance until sun-up. At midnight, throngs of people dump into the streets to shoot off fireworks and shout and sing. Never mind the snow to their shins and the air freezing in front of their faces.

Now that we have small kids, we celebrate quietly at home, or as quietly as the neighbors will allow. But we still run outside, or at least to the windows, to watch the fireworks. Last year offered an extra show as one of the drunk neighbors ran face first into a telephone pole!

What about you?

If you live somewhere other than your passport country, what changes have you made in holiday celebrations? If you live in your home country, what traditions do you think would be must-keeps and what would be flexible if you moved elsewhere?

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