Editors Note: I debated whether it's too early for Christmas content. Our family just put our tree up - so I guess it's now fair game! This article was last updated 6th Nov 2021.
There are over 160 countries around the world that celebrate Christmas so there is a good chance that, wherever you live overseas, you will be surrounded by tinsel, lights and seasonal tunes, not to mention live nativity scenes.
Here in Ecuador, there’s no shortage of holiday activities to keep you busy; however, the festivities may not be what’s familiar and can leave you longing for the home you left behind. Here are my suggestions for keeping your Christmas spirit jolly while living in Ecuador.
1. Zoom Loved Ones On The Big Day
One of the hardest things about living abroad is not being with family and friends on special occasions. If you can’t be with them physically, how about catching up digitally? Zoom and other apps such as Skype and FaceTime allow you to keep up with the people you care about in a way that wasn’t possible technologically 20 years ago.
If you’re not using one of these apps already, download it on your phone, tablet, computer or smart TV and do a couple of test runs to make sure the sound and picture quality is good. If you’re not tech-savvy, ask a local friend who uses one of the programs to help you set up your system, or hire one of the many good Ecuadorian computer techs that have been recommended on local expat websites. It takes less than an hour.
Find a time that suits both parties for a quick chat on the big day (or another time around it) and do whatever makes you feel connected and together. My family is fond of teasing anyone who says anything snarky or attitudinal around the holidays with the oh-so-scary threat of “Santa is going to suck your present back up the chimney,” followed by different versions of sucking sounds.
2. Track Down or Make Your Favorite Food
For some people, Christmas is about togetherness. For others, it’s about presents. And for a lot of us, it’s all about the food. We crave the special dishes that are made only at Christmas time – sugar cookies shaped like reindeer, a certain marinade for the turkey, the holiday punch that packs a punch. It’s important not to underestimate how important seasonal snacks are to your Christmas well-being.
That stated, sometimes it’s hard to find your favorite holiday foods in Ecuador, depending on your traditions, or the exact ingredients you need to make what you love. This is where you either think ahead and ask someone to mule in certain items for your culinary whims or you go out on a limb and substitute with some local ingredients.
My personal quest this year is to make peanut brittle with all Ecuadorian ingredients. I have fond memories of my mother (and her mother before her) making brittle on the stove, stirring continuously until the sugar in the brittle spins a thread, adding the nuts, pouring it onto a buttered countertop, and stretching the hot brittle into its final shape so you can crack it when it’s cool.
3. Throw Yourself Into Local Christmas Traditions
Being able to participate in some of your favorite traditions while living abroad definitely helps you feel less homesick; however, don’t underestimate the festive power of embracing local Christmas traditions. Ecuador is a land of many cultural influences and offers plenty of opportunities to get into the holiday spirit.
Cuenca actually throws one of the biggest Christmas celebrations in Latin America. On Christmas Eve, the city engages in Pase del Niño, an all-day-long parade that is a mix of sacred and secular. Introduced by the Spanish 500 years ago, parade participants carry likenesses of the baby Jesus through towns and villages. In Cuenca floats and cars decorated with flowers, fruits, roasted pigs, chickens, and empty beer cans make their way to Parque Calderón.
There are also bands, dancers, street performers, and Biblical characters, as well as children dressed in elaborate costumes. Cuenca’s parade draws somewhere around 50,000 participants, with over 200,000 more watching from rooftops, sidewalks, and balconies.
4. Be Your Own Version Of Santa or A Reformed Ebenezer Scrooge
Maybe you know people who could use some holiday cheer.
Are they alone, sick or new to town? Is there someone you would like to get to know and it hasn’t happened yet?
Sometimes the best gift to give yourself and others is the gift of you. Stop by for a visit for no reason, ask them out to lunch at San Sebas Cafe or for a walk along the Yanuncay, show them where to find the spices they need close to San Francisco Plaza, or see if they want to help you bake Christmas cookies to give to neighbors.
It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s about making time to connect with another human being on a heart level. Which is a big chunk of what Christmas is all about, really.
Don’t think you know anybody that could do with your cheering up? Don’t let this stop you. There’s plenty of very worthwhile charities in Cuenca (and beyond) that would absolutely love you to help out by providing donations or even volunteering. Start your search at Hogar de Esperanza – they generally have a big Christmas drive each year.
5. Sing, Dance, & Laugh Your Way Into The Holiday Spirit
Okay, this suggestion is applicable for any day of the week, and yet I think it’s super-important around Christmas to help bring out the best in ourselves.
Whenever I allow myself to engage in a simple physical activity such as singing, dancing or laughing – and it is a choice, by the way – I feel expansive. I love to sing, and when I sing, my heart swells up and I no longer resemble the Grinch whose heart was two sizes too small.
It’s easy to sing, dance, and laugh around the holidays because a lot of people are already feeling festive and will likely join in with you. And you can also attend or participate in an event that supports your activity and nudges your spirit, such as the regular Christmas concert by Cuenca’s International Choir.
And don’t forget that scientific research proves when you’re physically active, your body takes in more oxygen and you breathe more freely, which tells your brain it’s okay not to produce stress hormones, only the ones associated with fun, feeling good and relaxation.
Those are my go-to tips for how to stay jolly when you’re living in Ecuador, far from kith and kin for the holidays. What are the ways you bring out your holiday cheer overseas? Please share them below!