Spending American Holidays Abroad

By Rachel Bronson, ISA Student Services Advisor

As you begin planning your time abroad, you don’t typically think about the holidays you will be spending away from home, especially the holidays that are only celebrated in the United States.  When it comes down to your departure, reality can sometimes hit. Worried about missing fireworks and BBQs of the 4th if you study abroad in the summer? Nervous about your turkey and pumpkin pie cravings in November during a fall semester abroad? Not to worry – we’ve got some insider tips to avoiding those American holiday blues while abroad!


Independence Day:

Studying abroad during summer break could mean missing celebrating the 4th of July in the United States.  Public Service Announcement: you will be going to class on the 4th of July.  While Americans know it is a holiday, a lot of foreigners do not know the significance of it.  There will be options to go to an American-themed restaurant but chances are, it will not be exactly like home.  Those outside of the United States have different ideas about what “American” is depending on their access to American culture.  American-themed restaurants and bars abroad will go over the top to successfully complete the image such as lip sync and dance to “Greased Lightning.”  When I studied abroad in England, the locals I became friends with wanted to have an American Party.  When my friend and I showed up at the flat, we walked into country music, red Solo cups, Oreos and decorations of American Flags. While it might seem cheesy to American study abroad students, that is what a lot of foreigners think “American” is.

Depending on where you are studying abroad, you might find new holidays that are original to that specific country.  On October 28th Greece celebrates Ochi Day, or Greek Independence Day, commemorating Greece’s refusal to give into the Axis powers during the Greco-Italian War in 1940. It became a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus after World War II. Students do not go to school on this day. Everyone from young to old spends the day in town wearing traditional dress, singing, and carrying around Greek Flags. There are also parades in several cities. I was spending my fall break in Mykonos during this time and was not aware of the holiday. My friends and I were in a restaurant near some federal buildings, we happened to notice the extra Greek flags hung up. When locals began to flock to the city center singing, dancing, and carrying flags we began to ask around about the celebration. Locals handed us flags and invited us to join in on the celebration. It was a great experience to learn about and ultimately become a part of!


Halloween Abroad:

Dressing up and trick-or-treating is very much an American concept for celebrating Halloween. I spent Halloween in Greece and I did not even realize it was Halloween! There were no decorations, no candy corn, no pumpkins to remind me that October 31st was Halloween. In Italy, especially Sicily, they do not celebrate Halloween because they believe it is a holiday celebrating the devil. Some families are more familiar with an American Halloween after experiencing it in the United States, and they plan trick-or-treat events for the kids in their town/neighborhood. They coordinate with several small shops in the area to hand out candy and all of the kids dress up. In Belgium, several of the communities (Communes) put on a fair/carnival for young children during Halloween. They do not dress up but there are carnival rides and candy for the kids.  My host mother knew that Halloween was celebrated in the US and she liked decorating for all of the holidays. She put up fake spider webs and stickers/decals up in all of the windows! She made it feel like I was at home!


Thanksgiving Abroad:

Thanksgiving is a holiday rooted around traditions.  Whether it be specific food, playing a family flag football game or going Black Friday shopping with your Grandma, most of us have some sort of family tradition that is repeated year after year. For me, the food I eat on Thanksgiving is special. I want my family’s recipes and I want to do the cooking with my mother like I do every year. We don’t have a big family get together every year, sometimes we have a big friends-giving, but the food is always the same. We all have those special dishes that matter to us at the Thanksgiving table.

During my semester abroad, I knew I would be missing Thanksgiving. I was very grateful to the ISA Brussels staff because they planned a whole Thanksgiving party for us. We were able to send them a list of what we wanted to make and what ingredients we would need from the American store and we were on our way to cooking our favorite Thanksgiving foods.  Our Resident Director, Ma and her father, provided the turkey! We all met up at this awesome loft in Brussels for a big ISA family dinner with the foods that we had managed to prepare in a foreign country. We had different recipes of macaroni and cheese, green beans, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes and every other side dish you could ever dream of having at Thanksgiving. It was much easier to not dwell on the fact that we were not with our families when we were celebrating with our abroad family. For that, I was thankful for being a part of an ISA program.

Several of my friends were also abroad during the fall and missed Thanksgiving as well. When talking with them, they were initially disappointed that they would not be spending the holiday with their families, participating in their traditions of food and Black Friday shopping with their grandparents. Most of my friends were able to celebrate with their new American friends abroad. They were even able to show their foreign friends the significance of Thanksgiving. There were some initial difficulties in the grocery shopping process as the stores abroad are not what many are used to in the United States but many were able to achieve making the staples for the meal with a few substitutes such as roasted chicken as opposed to turkey.

One of my favorite things about studying abroad is the exposure to new traditions. Holidays might not be EXACTLY what you’re used to but you learn how to be flexible and some new traditions could be even BETTER!

Learn more about ISA’s programs.

Author: International Studies Abroad (ISA)

Since 1987, International Studies Abroad (ISA) has provided college students in the United States and Canada the opportunity to explore the world. ISA offers a wide variety of study abroad programs at accredited schools and universities in 73 program locations throughout the world.

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