One of the most difficult things about being in a foreign country is understanding the holidays. It can feel like everyone around you has gone crazy, decorating with strange lights and images, talking about almost nothing but shopping and presents, going to parties with mysterious customs like Secret Santa. When I lived in Sicily, I was mystified by street vendors selling over-sized decorations but no Christmas trees to hang them on, and I didn’t know how to react when I found out that no one gives presents there on Christmas day, but on January 6 instead. It was all very strange!
International students often retreat during the winter holidays, which they often find are too short for them to spend the money to go home and visit their own families. They might watch Christmas happen from outside and only participate when there is no other choice. There are better ways to spend the holidays, however, and here are some tips for enjoying the winter holidays in the U.S. and Canada.
1. Organize a dinner with other international students. This is one way you can share your own favorite holiday foods and traditions. Even if your favorite holiday does not fall in December, you can have a Favorite Holiday dinner with your international friends that honor everyone’s favorite celebrations. Make your favorite holiday food. Share your traditions. Give each other small gifts to include Christmas in your celebration. Decorate! Share pictures of your celebration on social media for your family and friends both here and back home. Make it your own!
2. Accept invitations to celebrate American style. If you are in HomeStay, find out how you can help your host family prepare for and celebrate the holidays in their home. Go to a Christmas party for dorm residents, and make a new friend. Help decorate around your dorm, or decorate your own room with Christmas decorations that you like. Talk to your RA about getting involved around the dorm during the holidays, and avoid just shutting yourself inside your room.
3. Consider volunteering. Most cities have soup kitchens, food pantries, or various shelters and can use extra hands during Christmas. You can spend Christmas cooking or serving food to people from your local community who aren’t so fortunate. Volunteering is a great way to meet Canadian or American friends, and it can make you feel very good at a time when many international students feel lonely and left out. Talk to your Director or campus organizations about volunteer opportunities; be sure you choose a shelter that is considered to be in a safe area.
4. Take a trip! Winter is a beautiful time of year, and winter sports are very popular. Look into going skiing or ice skating, or visit the big city to see their decorations. Many people visit New York at Christmas time to see the shows, visit the enormous Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, or to go ice skating in Central Park. You can head south and go to the beach in Florida and have a warmer holiday in the sun. Even if you can’t travel far, enjoy the sights and sounds in your own community. Visit the downtown area where there are decorations and people singing carols to enjoy Christmas as a tourist.
However, you choose to spend Christmas, be sure to do it with friends. Avoid hiding in your dorm room or apartment, and find a way to participate in the West’s favorite holiday season. You may make a new friend or two! Even better, you will have great memories and a few stories to tell your friends and family back home about celebrating Christmas in America or Canada. All of us at ESLI wish you and all of your loved ones a happy holiday season and a safe and happy New Year.