Lifestyle & Culture

Jackie Harding: My expat family’s best – and most stressful – holiday travel memories

Expats travel during this festive time of year … travel a lot! Either home to be with family, on vacation to avoid being alone, or to use the vacation days to explore the part of the world they live in. As I prepare to travel to my family I started to think about the strange and unusual things we travel with, and the actions we find ourselves doing, at this time of year.

When we lived in the USA, we often travelled home to the U.K. during the Thanksgiving break, making use of the long weekend to visit family far away. I could usually be found on the flight with packs of Christmas cards on my tray table and my list of recipients, scribbling away so that I could mail the UK and EU cards whilst there. I’m sure my fellow travellers thought the Brit in seat 17A was a little weird! The return flight would see our luggage packed with gifts and essentials such as mince pie filling and Crackers (not the edible kind).

‘The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear’

Immigration and security can be a challenge with travel at this time of year. Flying with gifts from the USA post 9-11 was a hurdle as nothing could be wrapped, should customs or security want to check what you were carrying. There was no way I was going to struggle with gift wrapping and bow tying only to see it unwrapped by the TSA.

So, my suitcase held secrets from the children, and I crossed my fingers that my suitcase was never checked in front of my Santa believers. Thankfully I never had to leap in front of my kids to shield their eyes from the exposure of stocking fillers as I’m sure that could well have caused some disruption in the airport.

Of course, travel this time of year is stressful for travellers and people employed in the industry. The numbers of travellers rise and so does tension, so it’s always good to smile at people and put yourself in their place for a moment. Think Will Ferrell in the movie “Elf”. 

One year on Christmas Eve travelling to the U.K. via the Channel Tunnel, I handed out chocolate Santa’s to all the immigration staff in their little passport huts. It was so rewarding to see first the surprise on their faces and then the smiles as we drove through saying Merry Christmas or Joyeux Noël.

When things go wrong … and I mean really wrong

We’ve all had those festive trips when everything possible seems to go wrong … your flight is delayed or cancelled; your Airbnb falls through; a pandemic happens and restrictions prevent you from going home … you know those stories!

The most stressful “Travel Christmas” for us was 2010. It was our last Christmas in our home in the U.S. My daughter had already moved to Europe to study in the UK and we were house hunting in the Netherlands while my son was still living in the States. So, we all agreed to go home for that one last memory before the house was sold.

Then temperatures dropped and it snowed in Europe and everyone knows snow in the U.K. is trouble. We were lucky with our flight from Amsterdam and our son had no trouble with his internal flight. But our 19-year-old daughter found herself stuck with all flights from Heathrow cancelled for days.

You can imagine the tears at the idea we wouldn’t be able to celebrate in our home together one last time … and that was just my husband!

Days ensued of badgering airlines, planning trips via Reykjavik or the North Pole, comforting a daughter long distance and trying to work with fingers continually crossed.

Finally on December 23rd we heard that she would be on a flight … no! Tears. December 24th … no. More tears. Then at last joy with the news that she was guaranteed a seat on a flight to Chicago and then Boston, but she wouldn’t arrive until 10 p.m. on Christmas night.

We made the decision that Christmas would be on December 26 so the 25th saw my son, husband and I doing “none-Christmas” things. A walk on the beach, and those of you who know New England will appreciate that it was extremely bracing, then a BBQ in the backyard. The neighbors looking at us with pity, thinking those poor Brits are losing their minds!

Then Christmas night there we were, all wearing Santa hats and holding handmade signs, waiting expectantly at the gate. “Hurray!” we all shouted loudly, as our daughter appeared in the throng of exiting passengers. “Oh god, you are so embarrassing!” was her response. We didn’t mind, we just wrapped her up in our arms, the best Christmas gift to arrive that day.

The things we carry

The things we carry with us to celebrate the festive season is also wonderous. We have a small wicker reindeer basket, that is always filled with chocolate coins, that we bought our first Christmas as a married couple, so it’s “vintage” now.

He’s lost his ears and now wears a holly crown to cover his embarrassment but without him Christmas would not be complete. Yes, I know, I am a nostalgic sentimentalist but don’t tell me you don’t have some decoration that is essential to your festivities every year? (Mind you I’m not sure my adult children feel the same way anymore.)

Last year, we decided to travel to Austria via the ICE international train, so due to physically only being able to carry a limited amount of luggage he was corralled in our home for the duration, with plenty of hay of course. This year we will drive to Austria so the limit on luggage is only dictated by the size of our car. Joy!

The reindeer is packed along with essentials such as homemade mince pies, (which travel with us every Christmas…we are Brits!), cookies, “stockings to hang by the chimney with care,” and of course another British “must have” for the festivities, crackers.

So, if you see a car, well laden with stockings and gifts, looking like something from a Norman Rockwell painting, give us a wave and shout “Seasons Greeting!”

We may give you a Christmas mince pie or, at the very least, a chocolate Santa.


See more from Jackie Harding here in Dispatches’ archives.

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Photographer/writer Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a long-time expat, she lived in Boston for 12 years and in the Netherlands for the past 10 years.

Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and photography.

Contributing to Dispatches since 2016, Jackie has written about her travels around Europe as well as about expat life and issues.

She also covered the Women’s March Amsterdam.

She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.

You can read more of Jackie’s work for Dispatches here

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