Orphan Christmas: A How-To Guide

I’ve spent more Christmas’ away from my home town and my family than I care to remember. In fact, the Christmas before my mother passed away was only the third Christmas I spent at home in ten years.

I should point out that when I’m away and people ask me if I’m going home for Christmas, I usually look around me and think “Umm… I am home.”

Recently I’ve had several emails from readers and conversations with friends about how I get around the lonely feelings you get when your loved ones are on the other side of the world. My answers are always the same. For me, I don’t get homesick often, in fact I can put my hand on my heart and give you five examples of the ONLY times I have been homesick during my travels. But I can understand why other people would feel this way, and so there are a handful of things you can do, and here are some of them:


If at all possible, postpone your travels. Depart the day AFTER Christmas. You’ll still get to be away for New Year’s Eve (and there’s no better way to ring in the New Year than to be sunning yourself on a tropical island, or exploring a jungle, or diving in an underwater paradise. Trust me!) but you will also get to eat turkey and pudding with your family.


If it isn’t possible for you to postpone your travel, then I suggest you reflect deeply on your blessings on that day. Are you missing Christmas with your family because you get to be traveling?! LUCKY!! Does it usually snow where you live? Is it snowing now? No? LUCKY! There are obviously less superficial blessings you could count, like your freedom, the fact you’re alive and living and able to feed and clothe yourself. And the fact that right now, no matter where you are, I promise that your family misses you too. In fact, they’re probably all very jealous, because you’re off exploring and they’re all arguing over who gets white meat and who doesn’t.


This is a no-brainer. Honestly, in the digital age we live in now, there is no reason for you to NOT call your mother for Christmas. Or for her birthday. Make sure your Nan knows how to use Skype before you leave. Give lessons to everyone. Send letters and post cards, make phone calls, text, email.


Christmas is different everywhere, and there are very few countries in the world that don’t have some form of celebration around the same time of year. Book yourself into a homestay, or find a local family to stay with once you’re in your destination and see how they do it. Embrace the culture you’ve come so far to see. No you won’t be able to eat your Nan’s Yorkshire puddings, but you will gain a better insight into local life than you would otherwise. And you’ll still get to have Christmas. I actually did this last Christmas, and got to return to my second home in London’s south east to spend Christmas with my long distance best friend, Ayla and her wonderful family.


Surprising Ayla for Christmas was the best!


Again, the local Christmas celebrations will be different to what you do at home. But if you’re really travelling, and you want to integrate into the local culture as fully as you can, then I suggest you celebrate as locally as possible. In Christian Kenya, I attended a church service on Christmas Eve with my good friend Joseph, a local man from Nairobi, and then had dinner with his family. They are devoutly Catholic, but speak zero English, with the exception of Joseph. The church service was in Swahili. I am not Catholic, but this is one of my favourite Christmas memories. There will be some form of Christmas parade, caroling, lights, outdoor services, ice-skating – it could be anything! Do Christmas the way the locals do it.


The real spirit of Christmas comes from giving and sharing yourself with others. So find a local charity, homeless shelter, soup kitchen – and give them your time. It won’t cost you anything and you will help change lives. I am living testimony to the fact that love knows no bounds, so send parcels to your family, call them, send letters, engage with the local community, embrace your inner child and marvel in the wonder that is Christmas by giving back to those in need. Because if you can afford to be traveling, then you can afford to give up some of your time to those who need more than you.

Reflecting on my blessings, Christmas Day in Amboseli NP, Kenya

Reflecting on my blessings, Christmas Day in Amboseli NP, Kenya


Get everyone in your hostel together and have a proper Christmas dinner. I did this once in Prague, and it was sensational. We all brought something to eat, a plate of something. I made pavlova, that quintessential Australian mess of meringue and cream and fruit. Someone brought proper Christmas pudding. Someone else begged the restaurant next door for him to be able to cook a turkey. Someone else brought a curry. It was a mish-mash of cuisines, and an even bigger mix of cultures, but it was fantastic.

And finally, for all mothers out there whose children are away for Christmas, do what my mother used to do for me. She would secretly hide presents and parcels in my luggage right before I left for the airport to fly out. Just make sure it’s not something that will get seized by customs, like food. Wherever your kid is going, there will be food. I swear it.


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