-written by Deanna, a current graduate wife
My husband and I have been doing this grad-school thing for 5+ years now and we have at least 2 to go. Possibly as many as 5. We’re in the thick of it. Although we are both from the US, we started our grad-school adventure in Canada – but only about 7 hours from our families. We had a semi-dependable car so, of course, we drove home for Christmas. Easy peasy. As relative newlyweds and people with great families who grew up with well-loved Christmas traditions, we really enjoyed sharing the nostalgia of childhood Christmases with each other those first few years.
Our third Christmas in Canada our daughter was born. I literally went into labour after breakfast on Christmas morning, went to the hospital that afternoon, and delivered her at some unholy hour the next morning. Adoring grandparents and aunts quite literally dropped their forks on their Christmas dinner plates and braved icy roads in the midst of a massive snow storm to come to us that Christmas day arriving at the hospital in the middle of the night… just hours before our daughter was born. It was an eventful Christmas but needless to say, we didn’t travel that year.
The next graduate degree took us much farther from our families. Instead of being a few hundred miles away, we were nearly 5,000 miles away (including crossing a rather significant ocean.) Money was tight… very tight. A flight home simply wasn’t an option. In fact this is our third Christmas overseas. Is it hard being away from the family we love so dearly at such a special time of year? Yes. (It’s even worse with a child!) Does it get easier? That depends on you. But here are a few survival tips from a graduate wife who has lived it a few years running.
First things first, admit that it sucks. If you’d rather be back home – just say so. Don’t bottle it all up with a brave face until you crack and turn into a big weepy puddle on Christmas day. Talk to your spouse. Tell your spouse about the specific things you’ll miss. Chances are that they have a list of things they’ll be missing as well. Grieve it if you need to. And don’t forget to tell your family and friends back home too! They’ll be thrilled to know you want to be with them – even if you can’t be there that year. Be sure to plan a time to video chat with your family too!
But then you’ve got to move on. Don’t wallow in self pity day in and day out. It isn’t pretty. Turn off the sad songs you’ve had on repeat. (I may or may not be speaking from personal experience when I’m guessing your repeat list includes Michael Buble’s ‘I Want To Go Home’ and the Christmas classic ‘There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays’.) Whether intentional or not, your wallowing will likely make your spouse feel like scum for dragging you away from your family at the holidays even though, in reality, you probably made the decision to move far away together. Instead, try to be thankful that you don’t have to deal with the headaches of holiday traffic, airport crowds, and jet lag. And then use some of the following tips to keep your Christmas spirits up and truly enjoy the season where you are!
1. Make some of your favorite traditions from back home happen where you are. It may take a little ingenuity, and it won’t be perfect – but it can be done! Here are a few of my favorites:
• Bake a plate of Christmas cookies for your neighbors (or just for yourself!),
• Put up a tree. Make it out of paper or felt and tape it to your wall if you must – but at our house we don’t go without a tree of some sort. Then cover it with ornaments, homemade if you didn’t bring any of your own (we didn’t). Cut out paper snowflakes, tie a bit of string to the top of pine cones (and add a little glitter?), shape some stars out of pipe cleaners, and string popcorn. Is it going to look like Rockefeller Plaza? No. But it will still be festive!
•Bust out some nostalgic Christmas music. Try Grooveshark to put together free playlists of all your old favorites.
•Make yourself an advent wreath and follow the true story of Christmas for the 4 weeks leading up to the big day. It can really help your perspective!
•Curl up with your spouse and watch your favorite Christmas movie with a cup of cocoa. (Stir it with a candy cane if at all possible.)
2. Embrace where you are. After all, you may never be here at this time of year again!
•Pick something to do with your spouse that you couldn’t do back home. December is packed full of concerts, plays, Christmas fairs and festivals, tree lighting ceremonies, church services, Christmas carol sing-alongs, etc. pretty much wherever you are. Find a unique setting like a cool playhouse, grotto or cathedral near you to experience some of these things in a new way!
•Take advantage of the weather. If it’s cold where you are, go ice skating or build a snowman with your spouse and then take a picture of the two of you with your snowman and send it to family and friends. If it’s warm where you are, hit the beach for the day to work on your tan and fire up the BBQ for Christmas dinner!
•Try some local Christmas food traditions. Here that means fresh roasted chestnuts, mince pies, mulled wine, bacon-wrapped sausages, brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, stuffing rolled into balls, roast turkey, Christmas pudding (doused in brandy and lit on fire!), Christmas crackers and wearing a paper crown during dinner and/or dessert.
•Volunteer in your community. Chances are, as poor as you might feel sometimes, there are people in your city who are much worse off than you. Find a soup kitchen or homeless shelter to help out at. Bless people less fortunate than you are and then go home feeling grateful for all that you have instead of feeling miserable about all the things you don’t.
•Find out who else is spending Christmas away from their families and plan something fun to do together: attend a midnight carol service together, invite someone to Christmas dinner, host a Christmas cookie exchange, organize a white elephant gift exchange, bundle up for a walk together and then head back to one of your homes for a Christmas movie and some hot apple cider, etc. The possibilities are endless – and all the friends who traveled home for the holidays will be sad to have missed such a fun time while they were away!
3. Create new traditions. Old traditions are great. But creating a tradition that is unique to you and your spouse (and kids!) is especially wonderful! I’m not sure we would have discovered this truth if we had simply gone back to our parents’ house every year to take part in their traditions. Let me encourage you to seize this opportunity! Here are a few simple ideas:
•Build a gingerbread house together. Can’t find gingerbread where you are and don’t want to make your own? Browse the cracker, cookie, and candy aisles at your local shop and get creative with what’s available to you!
•Hang a stocking (or just a sock!) for each person in the house on Dec 1. Then every day, write down one thing you appreciate about each of the other people in the house or perhaps something funny/memorable they did or said that day on a small bit of paper and put it in their stocking. On Christmas day, each person will read dozens of affirming observations about themselves! What a gift!
•Go for a Christmas day walk.
•Plan a yummy Christmas breakfast together. It doesn’t have to be complicated – just something you’ll do year after year. We tend to go for homemade cinnamon rolls smothered in butter and frosting served with eggs, fruit, and bacon or sausage.
•If you have kids, pick a small Christmas object (a star, a candy cane with a ribbon tied round it, a particular Christmas ornament, a santa hat, a small stuffed snowman or elf, etc.) and hide it in a different place in the house every day. Whoever finds it first wins a small prize like a piece of chocolate!
I hope you will try some of these tips and that you will find them to be as rewarding as we have over the past few years. From my family to yours, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year wherever you may be!