The holiday season can be full of highs and lows for host families and exchange students alike. There’s the anticipation and joy of get-togethers and gifts, as well as the stress of getting it all done. Thanksgiving and Christmas rank high on exchange students’ list of most-anticipated experiences in America. At the same time students have extra time off from the distractions of school and extracurricular activities, which can cause them to dwell on family gatherings and holiday traditions they will miss this year. Here are some tips on how to navigate the holidays with your student.
Let your student know what to expect
Any routine your student has fallen into by now will be interrupted by school breaks and holiday activities. Give your student advance notice of special events, visitors, and holiday travel. Have a family meeting to go over your holiday plans and answer any questions they may have. Making a calendar of events will give them something to look forward to when feeling homesick, as well as provide notice of times to be reserved for your family when making plans with friends. Here are some possible items for discussion.
- Which holidays do you observe?
- Will you celebrate in your own home or somewhere else?
- Will any extra family members or friends be joining you?
- When will special meals and events take place?
- What kinds of food will be served?
- Do you decorate for the holidays?
- Do you attend any special religious services?
- When and with whom do you exchange gifts?
- Does Santa play a role in your family’s home?
- How do you typically ring in the New Year?
Make your student feel welcome
Your student may occasionally feel awkward and out of sorts during the holidays, particularly in large groups with unfamiliar friends and family members. Even the most outgoing and well-adjusted exchange student may suddenly experience a bit of Outsider Syndrome, missing their own holiday traditions and wondering if they are intruding on yours. Here are some ways to ensure your student feels welcome and included.
- Introduce your student to new friends and family members at holiday gatherings.
- Help initiate and facilitate conversations between the student and others. Your student and Great Uncle Joe may not know what to make of each other at first!
- Invite your student to describe their own holiday traditions, and consider incorporating one or more of these into your celebrations this year.
- Give the student a job to do when possible and appropriate, such as setting the table or putting tinsel on the tree.
- Include a stocking for your student on the mantle with any others.
- Have something for your student to open at gift exchanges, whether it’s something small you provide or a surprise gift or message from friends and family members back home.
- Draw the student out of their bedroom for family time when they have been spending too much time alone.
Don’t feel pressure to go overboard
Remember students are here to participate in your family’s everyday life, and that includes celebrating the holidays in your usual manner. Don’t run yourself ragged trying to orchestrate elaborate, Hallmark-worthy occasions. Here are some simple but memorable ways to commemorate the season, requiring little or no extra effort or expense.
- Watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
- Have a family movie night to watch holiday classics.
- Attend a local tree lighting or Christmas pageant.
- Bake Christmas cookies.
- Decorate a gingerbread house.
- Put up a Christmas tree.
- Take a photo with Santa.
- Drive around after dark to see light displays.
- Go caroling.
- Volunteer at a food bank or toy drive.
- Watch the ball drop in Time’s Square from the comfort of your own living room.
Remember being together or on the go for extended periods can be overwhelming for everyone, and your student is taking in a lot of new things at once. Don’t forget to schedule some downtime as well to give everyone time to relax and recharge!
Think outside the (gift) box
Host families and students alike may be feeling the strain of extra holiday spending. In addition, students will have limited space in their luggage at the end of their program for all of the new things they have acquired. Here are some possible ways to show each other you care without breaking the bank and overfilling your student’s luggage.
- Consider drawing names or placing spending limits on gifts to keep expenses reasonable.
- Exchange homemade or personalized gifts such as a photo album documenting your time together.
- Give your student gift certificates for things like the movies or a favorite restaurant.
- Fill a stocking with things your student can use here like toiletry items, school supplies, favorite snacks, or sports equipment or winter accessories they may need (which can be donated to worthy recipients at the end of the student’s program).
- Take a road trip or plan a special experience with your student. Perhaps you can visit another part of the state, head to the mountains or beach, go to an amusement park, or attend a special concert or sporting event.
Here are more tips and ideas to help students and host families celebrate Christmas together.
Preparing your student and yourself for the upcoming holidays will set you up for success versus stress. Helping your student feel like a welcome part of your plans will help them focus on their experience here and fight off holiday homesickness. Sharing simple but special experiences and exchanging thoughtful holiday gifts with your student will create lasting memories and allow you to enjoy this special time of year without being overwhelmed and over budget.