For Americans Abroad, Celebrating the Holidays Means Bucking Tradition

This year, take a page from the expat holiday handbook: do whatever the hell you want.

My first attempt to celebrate an American holiday, shortly after moving to Argentina, left the new neighbors questioning my mental stability. 

Hell-bent on giving my kids the same traditions they’d had in Michigan, Halloween was on. I invited some neighbors I barely knew and gave them lame homemade costumes to wear upon arrival. I could not find pumpkins, so we “carved” oranges. Embarrassing attempts to teach them the “Thriller” dance ensued. Everyone there, born and raised without television in remote Patagonia, was painfully confused.
 
Later, the kids took off trick-or-treating, even though the nearest house was a literal “over the river and through the woods” situation. No one has door bells, so they just stood outside in full costume yelling. (To their credit, they did get some dulce de leche pancakes cooked up for them on the spot). Cut to an hour later when I’m frantically searching the mountainside dressed like a zombie and knocking on strangers’ doors, asking in terrible Spanish “if they have seen children.”
 
The following year I gave it another go. I handed out goodie bags in advance and awkwardly explained that my kids would be coming by that evening shouting something in English, and could they please hand them these bags when they did so? (An unexpected surprise was the goodie bags they made for me, some with massive jars of homegrown weed and beer.)
 
Fast forward ten years and I have officially given up. It’s just not the same as it was in the US and that’s okay. We’ve lost the need to hang on to the old, and with time, have embraced the new. 

In 2020, the pandemic has thwarted travel plans, birthdays, festivals, and traditions the world over. This holiday season will no doubt look radically different for many Americans. But for a little comfort and inspiration, take a page from the expat holiday handbook: Get creative, get resourceful, or get by perfectly fine doing whatever the hell you want.

When it comes to celebrating holidays abroad, there are no rules. Some Americans will go to extreme lengths to keep their beloved traditions alive: Helen Sharp, when she lived in Taiwan, would special order Thanksgiving turkey from international luxury hotels because it was near impossible to find one anywhere else.

But most expats I spoke to agreed it’s liberating not to rigidly stick to tradition—or even the calendar. Sharon Nieuwenhuis, who lived for years in Mendoza, Argentina, once tried to do a proper Thanksgiving at a friend’s apartment in November—which, in the southern hemisphere, is unbearably hot. Now she celebrates on the 4thof July instead, which marks the beginning of winter. (Meanwhile at my house in El Bolson, in lieu of fireworks and barbecue, we’ll gather by a roaring bonfire and shovel Pop Rocks in our mouths and call it good.)

“For us, it’s all about embracing the surroundings we’ve found ourselves in, and celebrating all that’s wonderful about it,” says Kristen Gill, a professional photographer who recently moved to Baja California Sur. This Thanksgiving, her goal was to be fully present and embrace local traditions from her adopted home of Mexico

“I am a visitor in a foreign country and I want to learn about the region’s history and culture. Me and some expat women are ditching the turkey and going to indulge in cold ceviche instead, and then hop on a paddle board for a sunset paddle.”

There’s something to be said for skipping the whole holiday rigamarole—or settling for a less-than-perfect Holiday Lite. Katka Lapelosova was determined to host a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for friends in Slovakia, but came up against a few logistical deal-breakers: She didn't have a fridge, so she couldn’t store or pre-prep ingredients, and the walk to the grocery store was over a mile.

“I ended up only making mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. The store didn’t have anything like cranberry sauce or even a chicken I could roast,” recalls Lapelosova. “I mean, it tasted good! But I'm sure I disappointed my Slovak friends after building up American Thanksgiving.”

If you’re scaling back in the kitchen this year, little touches around the house can keep spirits high. Peter Bibler, an expat in China, never bothered to carry on US holiday traditions; his wife had never even celebrated Christmas before. But one year he randomly went all out, decorating their apartment with garlands, pine cones, and a two-foot fake Christmas tree with some cheap ornaments.

“I found all of these decorations tucked away in a shop on the 4th floor of a local flower market,” Bibler told me. “I also draped two stockings over the TV (having no better place to hang them). Very early Christmas morning, I stuffed the stockings with sundry little gifts. My wife awoke to see full stockings for the very first time, and for just a moment, I saw on her face that childlike joy as though Santa had come. It is a precious memory. Especially for a cynic like me.”

As for me, I still celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, but they are so scaled down they barely resemble the holidays I used to know. For Thanksgiving, I usually gather whatever stray American backpacker or volunteer I can find and host a picnic potluck out in the garden. Christmas is spent with friends and family at nearby Lago Puelo, relaxing as profoundly as possible. A lamb is thrown on the grill, bottles of fancy malbec are opened, and chocolate-covered strawberries are passed—but gifts are rarely exchanged.

I asked my daughter Stella about her childhood Christmases here in Argentina. “There was never a need to measure love through presents and extravagance,” she offered. “It was always super chill.” Which, after the year we’ve had, is about as close to perfect as you can get.

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Cathy Brown splits her time between traveling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats.