Christmas in Paris: My first holiday abroad
Until last year, I had celebrated every single Christmas with my immediate family. In 2021 though, I moved abroad to Paris, France and with the pandemic raging in the background, last December saw worldwide shutdowns, flight cancellations, and restrictive COVID-19 regulations. Couple those aspects with expensive and 10-hour-plus layovers in different cities and last Christmas, I found myself unable to return to Canada.
At the time, I had made a few friends in my apartment building and so I ended up spending my first holidays in France with them. I missed my traditions with my family back home, which included large turkey-filled dinners shared with uncles and cousins and staying up until midnight to open gifts under the Christmas tree. Last year, I was forced to survive the holiday season alone – but it wasn’t lonely. I traded in the familiar with the unfamiliar and to my surprise, the holidays were joy-filled as ever.
Despite COVID-19 restrictions that prevented large gatherings, the holiday festivities in Paris persevered with a mix of traditional and new activities available for tourists and residents. At the beginning of December, I strolled through the city center with friends taking in the dazzling Christmas displays that illuminated the streets, filling the city with a festive, colourful glow. I attended the Christmas market at the famous Jardin des Tuileries which featured an enormous ferris wheel with skyline views. Keeping the French tradition, I drank mulled hot red wine and laughed with my friends throughout the whole night.
I was forced to survive the holiday season alone – but it wasn’t lonely. I traded in the familiar with the unfamiliar and to my surprise, the holidays were joy-filled as ever.
Overnight, I experienced the city as it transformed itself into a picturesque Christmas postcard with activities in every neighbourhood that offered traditional French foods, music and holiday cheer. From Nutella crepes to croque monsieurs and a makeshift ice rink set up in the center of Jardin des Tuileries, the Magie de Noël was brought to life. There was family-friendly fun with reindeer displays, go-karting (an activity I personally enjoyed) and beautiful holiday lights that uplifted sober pandemic spirits.
I felt reassured and hopeful to be young, living in Paris and nonetheless celebrating with friends who were also unable to travel back home for the holidays. It was a beautiful experience to immerse myself in French customs and reflect on my own Christmas traditions through the lens of another culture.
Departing from my usual Christmas routine with family in Canada, I discovered that the holiday spirit knows no bounds—it can only be strengthened by community and connection. Home is not a physical place, but rather a mindset and a way of living.
I had to accept my current reality, instead of succumbing to self-comparison brought on by social media which paints an idea of a one-size-fits-all picture-perfect Christmas season
For those of us who, through choice or by life circumstance, will spend the holidays away from family, leaning into friendships can yield beautiful results. Since leaving Canada a year and a half ago, I’ve learned that friendship is a key pillar to building a successful community. Part of the process of establishing a home in an unfamiliar city, country, or area is surrounding yourself with a thriving community. I’m grateful to have formed deep friendships that have made a world’s difference.
Throughout December, I had to accept my current reality, reassuring myself - instead of succumbing to self-comparison brought on by social media which paints an idea of a one-size-fits-all picture-perfect Christmas season.
Difficult times pass and, in my case, spending a holiday away from family became less lonely and isolating when surrounded by friends. To quote the comedic legend Charlie Chaplin referencing the “six best doctors” for a successful life, “friends” are at the top of the list. “Stick to them at all stages of your life and enjoy a healthy life,” states Chaplin. I’m happy my experiences reflected his sentiments.
On Christmas Day, I was invited to a friend’s Christmas party who lived in a small town southeast of Paris. The party consisted of local expats from diverse countries who, like myself, had travelled far and wide away from their homes in hopes of establishing themselves in France. When I arrived, the mood was light and joyous, with everyone exchanging stories and laughter abound. We spent the day playing games and eating hearty foods like rice, chicken and hot spices alongside wine, soft drinks and spirits. I had the opportunity to connect with new people and it helped ease the alienation of spending the holidays in a different country.
Looking back on my first Christmas abroad, despite ideal situations, it was a meaningful growing experience. Living in Paris has proved full of unexpected surprises, filled with both up and down moments which overall have helped me build resiliency and self-confidence in my abilities and strengths.
In its own way, celebrating the holidays away from home can be a welcoming experience that invites us to rewrite social scripts replacing expectations with new memories. This is a reminder that family can also be a network of friendships intentionally built to keep each other close and spread the essence of the beautiful holiday spirit.