Image: The Christmas Markets in Paris
I've traveled over Christmas and New Years every year for the past 10 years, with the exception of 2020 and 2021. Thanks, Covid. In fact, this holiday season I was supposed to be in Turkey. Instead, I took my dog for a holiday hike here in Lexington, Kentucky.
There's something perfect about spending the holiday season abroad - especially if your family is challenging. I've had the pleasure of spending Christmas and New Years in some amazing places - the San Blas Islands, the Galapagos, Costa Rica, Belize, Egypt, and Paris, to name a handful. I've done some very serious hikes over Christmas too, like one in Patagonia. The great thing about traveling this time of year is that you can get lost in where you are. Depending on where you go, Christmas might not be celebrated, so you may not even notice the holiday. Or you can focus on the cultural experience of seeing how others do Christmas. Either way, if you're abroad over the holiday, it's easy not to focus on the fact that you're spending it alone.
Image: A "Christmas Tree" in the San Blas islands
If you're facing a holiday alone because you're a digital nomad, or because you're sans family and your friends are all tied up with their own families, or because Covid, or because you just prefer to spend it alone, I highly recommend traveling at this time of year.
Here are some observations about traveling over the winter holidays.
-It's a great time to hike. If you're in the US, the trails are pretty clear on Christmas Day and New Years Eve. I hiked Bryce Canyon on Christmas Day and saw almost no one.
-It's a perfect time for a group tour. When I hiked in Patagonia and Costa Rica, it was with a group of other people who had made the decision to travel over Christmas, so we didn't really acknowledge the holidays all that much. There were other things to focus on, like the trek at hand. Even if you're not doing something intensely active, spending the holiday with a group of strangers who are all doing the same thing is sort of like being with a mishmash family. I enjoyed the very best Christmas meal I've ever had in Paris with a bunch of people I'd met the day before. But we all wanted a special holiday, and it was a unique context for getting to know them and have an enjoyable experiences even though each of us was away from home.
Image: Torres del Paines
-Seeing the way others celebrate the holiday is endlessly entertaining. Not only does every country have their own way of celebrating, each town and region has its own style, too. Lexington, KY, favors ultra-understated white lights, candles in the windows, and real trees. San, Jose, Costa Rica favors loud parades and the biggest, brightest decorations that can be found.
Image: San Jose decorated for Christmas
-Seeing the way others think people celebrate Christmas is even better. I am not a Christian, and I can't say I've "celebrated Christmas" in a long time. I did, however, grow up twice-a-year Methodist (church on Christmas and Easter), so I have a pretty good grasp of the traditions. When I was, however, in South Korea and in Egypt, I got a fun perspective on decorations and celebrations. When I lived in Taegu, S.K., Christianity was starting to become much more popular, and people were starting to adopt the decorations - all of which were neon. In Egypt, the crew of the riverboat I was staying on thought it would be sweet to make the guests a Christmas Dinner. There were some traditional meats, (which you normally wouldn't find there), some Egyptian cuisine classics, and decorations! Some of the decorations were plastic Santa Claus faces, and some were the Easter Bunny. When another traveler asked about the Easter Bunny decor and explained the way we decorate for Easter, everyone ended up having a good laugh about the conflation of the two holidays. (P.S. it was super sweet for the crew to celebrate Christmas with the guests. Even beyond Paris, it was the most memorable Christmas I've had in part because it was so thoughtful.)
Image: On a camel in Egypt at Christmastime
-Christmas while traveling generally means less of being caught in the consumerism, and more just observing. If you're celebrating at home, chances are you're stressed out by having to find those perfect gifts. If you're traveling, you can't bring much back, and there's less pressure to just buy, buy, buy. Instead, you can sit back and enjoy a holiday market or watch shoppers in a mall and just enjoy the atmosphere without having to indulge in the hustle.
Image: A mini Christmas tree at Glovers Atoll, Belize
-It's great to plan an outdoor adventure for Christmas Day. Everything is going to be closed in the way of shops and restaurants. If you're traveling by yourself, it's easy to feel lonely and strange really fast on Christmas Day if you're just sitting around looking at everyone else's celebrations on your Insta feed. So this year, I put my phone down for most of the day and took my dog out to a nice park for a long walk. When we got home, I cooked a nice meal and then watched a movie before checking into everyone else's doings. This kept my sort of complex feelings towards Christmas (which are exacerbated by a strained parental relationship and having lost a loved one to suicide on Christmas Eve last year) in check.
-For the days before and just after Christmas, indulge in special once-a-year events. Here in Lex, for examples the historic mansions host Christmas teas, which are a great way to see the place and get in the festive spirit with both locals and out-of-towners. There are special holiday concerts and parades. Every town has its own special holiday events, so figure out what they are and try them out.
Image: Christmas tree at the Shaker Village near Lexington
Remember, you don't have to celebrate the holidays the same way as everyone else, and if you're moving around the country or the world, you'll need/want to create your own traditions. Embrace it and enjoy in your own way.