Celebrating the Holidays Abroad: My Christmas in Costa Rica

Flat trails with leaves on the ground in Costa Rica.

Being abroad for the holidays can be very tough. Holidays are meant to be a time for family – whether that’s with your close brothers and sisters or your distant relatives. In the winter of 2015, I missed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s with my family because I was volunteering in Costa Rica for three weeks. While there were some pros to that, there were also cons.

While volunteering at the Animal Rescue project, I was living with a host family, which meant I was able to share their Christmas traditions with them. I remember waking up on Christmas morning at about 8am, and walking out to join my family for breakfast. I was expecting a big Christmas celebration, but they acted like it was any other day. We went to church the night before, and they put up a Christmas tree in the living room. But, other than that my host family didn’t do much for Christmas.

When I asked why they didn’t exchange gifts they said, “We usually do, but this year we can’t afford it.”

This was heartbreaking to hear, but it gave me an idea.


I knew I would be abroad for the holidays, so before I left I bought my host family Christmas gifts. They weren’t anything extravagant, but I figured everyone deserves to open a gift on Christmas morning. After breakfast, I hurried to my room, took out the gifts I had bought them, and put them under the tree with their names and a note on the gifts meant for them. I then went into the kitchen where they were all sitting, and asked them to come into the living room where they saw the gifts under the tree.

I may not have opened a new pair of Adidas or gotten a new iPhone that Christmas, but it did make me feel really good to put a smile on the faces of members of my host family. I decided to go abroad for the holidays because I wanted that new experience, and to see how other people/cultures around the world celebrate the holidays. Being abroad for the holidays may be hard because you will be in a new world surrounded by people you don’t know, but if you look at it with a new perspective, and keep your mind open, you will have an amazing time.


Here are some tips to help you get through the holidays abroad:

Keep An Open Mind

You were probably aware that you would be missing the holidays when you decided to go overseas, but you probably weren’t aware of how sad it could be. I get it. I was in the same place. Just be open to a new culture with different traditions, and it will probably be a ton of fun. I don’t regret missing Christmas with my family because it gave me a whole new perspective.

Accept that You Will Likely Feel Homesick

My dad face-timed me on Christmas morning when my little sisters were opening their gifts from Santa and pouring out their stockings. My little sister who was seven at the time was screaming because the reindeer actually ate the cookies she and my mom had made the night before. Listening to them opening their gifts made me really sad, and all I wanted was to be there with them. But, as soon as I accepted that I was in an amazing place with a family that was so sweet and loving, I started to cheer up.

Get off Social Media

I was guilty of this as it is so tempting, but it is going to make you feel much worse if you go on social media. It won’t do anything for your homesickness if you are watching your friends and family having fun without you.


Cocoa fruit in Costa Rica.

Go out with Friends

When I was in Costa Rica, I spent Christmas afternoon with one of my really good friends who was also from the USA. Her and I went on a chocolate tour, and got to try all these different kinds of chocolates. It was a lot of fun and completely took my mind off of how sad I was to be missing Christmas with my family.

Being abroad for the holidays is such an amazing gift because you get to share your culture with others. Always remember people may not remember what you said or what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.


Would you like to experience the gift of cultural exchange? 

One thought on "Celebrating the Holidays Abroad: My Christmas in Costa Rica"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *