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What is it like to celebrate Christmas in the UK as an expat?

Edgary Rodriguez

BY Edgary Rodriguez

21st Dec 2023 Christmas

4 min read

What is it like to celebrate Christmas in the UK as an expat?
We speak to several people who have made the UK their home about how they spend the holiday season 
Every expat has their own story, but almost all share one thing: a longing for family and traditions during special times like Christmas. However, if you're in a place like the UK during the holidays, the experience can be magical and exciting, too.
We asked expats living in the UK how they celebrate Christmas, mitigate loneliness, embrace the cultural experience and integrate their old home into their new home.

Loving the UK Christmas season

Red phone booth and Christmas tree
The holidays can be a tough time if you miss home, however, it's also an opportunity to enjoy life in a different way and still love it.
"My husband and I love Christmas time in the UK. As soon as the Christmas lights go up in Bury, it starts to feel festive," says Noelle Camp, an international consultant based in Bury St Edmunds, originally from the United States.

Mixing traditions

"I personally find it magical to bring together two very different cultures on these special days," says Elena Artero, a London-based tour guide and content creator from Spain.
She's not alone, many expatriates choose to include new customs in their Christmas and keep some traditions from their old home. Thus, they don't lose their roots, remain open to new experiences and avoid falling prey to nostalgia.
Gisella Stapleton, a Peruvian painter and muralist based in London says that, although she has lived in England since 2011, she maintains the tradition of celebrating Christmas on December 24 as she did back home. Yet, new influences from the UK have joined her family's festivities.
"We celebrate both ways as my children were born here and they like the tradition of waking up early on the 25th to open presents," Gisella says.
So, she usually gathers for dinner with friends on the evening of December 24, to celebrate Christmas Latin style, and on 25th she follows the English tradition of opening presents in the morning and having Christmas dinner with the family.

Christmas food

A piece of turron on display at a shop
Flavours from home are unforgettable, they tend to stay in the memory forever. For expats, it is essential to revisit at some point these culinary delights that they tasted in their childhood.
"I always like to prepare something from my country for Christmas, sometimes I have prepared tamales, baked turkey and, of course, always the typical panettone with hot chocolate," Gisella says.
Although José Betancourt, co-founder of Fitness Fun Machine in London, keeps his Venezuelan Christmas culinary heritage, he tries to stay open to other cultures, incorporating the traditions of his friends as well. "Since I live in London there are always lots of things to do."
He hosts friends of other nationalities for a dinner party and shares the process of preparing Venezuelan Christmas food, his favourite.
The new scents and flavours of the UK are becoming traditions, too. Gisella adds to these dates roast potatoes, gravy and the ever-present Christmas crackers, as her daughter loves them.
For Elena the food is always a fusion of local and Spanish dishes (and ham is never absent!). "I have incorporated in my family the tradition of crackers or the elf on the shelf and, in my house, we also eat a lot of turrón (a nougat confection) and polvorones (a type of crumbly shortbread) at this time of year."

A cold, but cosy Christmas

While everyone misses warm days in winter, for expats who come from places where it's always summer (or summer during the Christmas season), the experience of a cold Christmas, like in the movies, is simply magical.
"I’m originally from Florida, where it’s usually 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit over Christmas, and we celebrate a 'white Christmas' by going to the beach," Noelle says. "There's just something really cosy about enjoying a steaming cup of tea on a cold Christmas morning—that's not something we would ever experience back home."
Snowy, festive town
For Gisella this was an amazing experience as well. When she moved to Europe, she enjoyed a different kind of Christmas with cold and sometimes snow. She remembers taking hundreds of photos in her early years and sending them to her family.
"As a child in my country, Christmas was always in the summer and I found it curious that all the Christmas decorations like the tree…the images of Santa Claus in the snow, the reindeer, etc, were related to winter," Gisella says. "All the Christmas movies we watched had snow in them, nothing really fit with our sun and beach."

Keeping traditions and living new experiences

At Christmas time we are all like children, marvelling at what is new in our lives, unable to stop looking at everything with curious eyes.
"Last year, my husband and I went to a Christmas tree farm to pick out our tree and were surprised to find that there were so many types of trees, and we didn’t recognise any of them!" Noelle says.
Even though we add memories with every step, we still have space and love for the past, like Elena who continues to celebrate Three Kings Day (January 6) as at home in Spain: "we still give the most important gifts on 'Reyes', although we have incorporated some presents at Christmas."

Missing the family home

Gisella misses her family in Peru at Christmas time. She remembers how the whole family and friends used to gather at her grandparents' house, reaching more than 30 people. "I really miss those experiences, the family togetherness and the sharing together".
While adding local flavours is great, the longing for familiar tastes and smells is common among expatriates around the world as well. Sometimes trying to imitate them does not lead to the same results.
"Luckily, you have friends who become family"
Noelle misses her mum's homemade chocolate mousse, yet she realised no other is like it. Replacing it with new flavours isn't always the best either. "Last year I tried a traditional Christmas pudding and I was not impressed."
"The most complicated thing is not being able to spend a special day with your family, but luckily here you have friends who become family," Elena says.
For when nostalgia seems to win, some turn it into acts of kindness, like José: "It was hard for me to be away from my family, especially at Christmas, but those experiences motivated me to help people in difficult situations by bringing them Christmas dishes in the days before Christmas."
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