Having to improvise during the holidays is nothing new to the expat population. Most know what it’s like to have to hunt for favorite foods and come up with creative substitutes if need be. They are used to having to modify holiday traditions or create new ones altogether to fit their circumstances and surroundings. And perhaps most importantly, those who live abroad know what it feels like to be separated from friends and family during a time when so much revolves around being with loved ones. And while none of it is easy, most expats will say that you just learn to make the best of it.

This year, the whole planet is in a state of having to “make the best of it”. And pretty much everything has called for improvisation and modification — the coronavirus pandemic has made sure of that! Facing one of the most tradition-bound times of the year under these pandemic-circumstances has thrown many of us for an extra loop in this already turbulent year.

As Kate Murphy writes about in her NYT article “Pandemic-Proof Your Habits”, there are biological explanations for why routines and habits are so important for our well-being. And while we may be naturally predisposed to not like change, Murphy also points out that there are simple steps we can take to mitigate some of the feelings of stress and discomfort. She says:

“When there are discrepancies between expectations and reality, all kinds of distress signals go off in the brain. It doesn’t matter if it’s a holiday ritual or more mundane habit like how you tie your shoes; if you can’t do it the way you normally do it, you’re biologically engineered to get upset. This in part explains people’s grief and longing for the routines that were the background melodies of their lives before the pandemic — and also their sense of unease as we enter a holiday season unlike any other. The good news is that much of what we miss about our routines and customs, and what makes them beneficial to us as a species, has more to do with their comforting regularity than the actual behaviors. The key to coping during this, or any, time of upheaval is to quickly establish new routines so that, even if the world is uncertain, there are still things you can count on.”

So, in the spirit of creating new routines, I asked my coworkers at Globiana, who are spread out across the globe, for their best tips on how to cope this holiday season. While I got a wide array of answers, everyone seemed to agree that decorating with lights — and lots of them — is a surefire pick-me-up! Here is what else was shared:

Monica: We usually have a “robust” game of gift swapping followed by a massive paper ball fight. This year, since none of us can travel home, we’re doing a virtual White Elephant swap.

Marlies: We will be setting up a 10ft Christmas tree, and use fresh pine throughout the house so that we can really “smell” the season. Lots of candles and baking cookies are a must, as well as zooming with family and friends overseas.

Elena: We are missing our beloved “Soup and Song” evening this year for the first time in the last decade. But the spirit is alive and demands a creative approach — we will have a socially distanced evening around a big bonfire in our ranch meadow with hot wine and cookies, and maybe some caroling with our neighbors. And for sure, we’ll go all out on decorations. What can lift the spirit better than Christmas lights?

Camilla: We actually changed our traditions regarding preparations last year from having everything ready the day before Christmas to working on them together on Christmas eve (when we celebrate). This makes it a bit more chaotic and less formal, but it really fits the need right now. On top of that, we will choose the family game for the year, and we are leaning towards having a virtual White Elephant gift swap. Could be a fun addition for all those extended family members who are not used to a more ”lonely” Christmas celebration, the way we as expats are, after having lived abroad for many years.

Desiree: One of our Christmas traditions is to go see a “Cirque du Soleil” performance the day after Christmas — the show has been in our area the last few years. This is my Christmas present to my family. This year, all shows are canceled of course, so, what to do? I figured we’ll have our own “circus” — I ordered rollerblades for all of us and maybe we can come up with our own choreography in the backyard, or just a fun skate along the creek trail. And yes, knee pads, elbow and wrist protectors are included! 

Trixi: We switched to a virtual wish box a few years ago when the kids moved out — we have a shared google drive where everyone can deposit their Christmas wish and then a trusted friend will randomly assign the giver to the recipient via email. A tradition missed is the family Christmas trip — either to the snow or the beach, neither of which is possible right now. I think of this as taking it back to the old times, generations ago when travel was a luxury of the super-wealthy only. So, we will stay and enjoy a slow time at home. Lastly, don’t forget about all the fun games you can play on zoom — we did a lot of that in the spring when we were in the initial lockdown. The upside is that you can play and hang out with friends across the country and the world — we got used to sipping morning coffee while our family in Europe was having an evening drink!

The saying “necessity is the mother of invention” comes to my mind when reflecting on what this year has brought to the table — we have been forced to come up with alternative ways of doing things in most areas of our lives, big and small, personal and professional, and in society at large. When I try to make sense of life right now, which I admit is hard to do, I keep landing on the opportunities for building better habits, not just as individuals but as a society. If we can do that, then surely something has also been gained amidst all that has been lost this year. And that is a comforting thought this holiday season. Here is to a better 2021, and beyond!

By: Felicia Shermis

Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/28/sunday-review/pandemic-habits-routine-brain.html?searchResultPosition=1

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