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For many international and out-of-province students like myself, the holidays are a time where we get a little left behind. The narrative around this time is one of a return to home and childhood, and that’s not really the case if you’re in a place that’s still relatively new and seems especially big, empty and alien when everyone else leaves.

Before this year, I hadn’t been out of the U.K. for more than three weeks at a time. Since I first moved away for university, Christmas has always been a time very much focusing on home and what it means to me. This year marks my first university break living in a different country. I think my parents sensed my homesickness, because I got a package in the mail which turned out to be a Cadbury advent calendar.

I'll get to see my parents at the holidays, but only for a few days. We’ll be in a high-rise hotel room in Toronto — a very different scenario from the cozy home Christmases I’m used to, which involve a tree, stockings full of sweets and dozing off on the sofa full of mince pies, cheese and biscuits and wearing paper hats from cheap crackers.

There’s also New Year’s Eve. Usually, it’s a time where I see all my old friends who I had to part ways with for university, so like Christmas, it’s very much a homecoming. Except for those few days in Toronto with my family, though, I’m living on-campus for the holidays. So this time, I’ll be greeting 2017 in a country thousands of miles from home, without my group of friends and without the means to easily call them.

Most students probably have the same kind of experience. We don’t tend to live with our families except in our breaks, so Christmas and other holidays act as a chance to go home and soak in that festive mix of excitement, relaxation and childhood nostalgia. Being in a different part of the world interrupts all that, but it’s not a bad thing.

So no, I’m not going to be in the English suburbs soaking up the Christmas spirit around a tree, wearing hats out of crackers. And I won’t be gathered with my friends from sixth form college watching fireworks contentedly drunk on New Year’s Eve.

But what I am going to do is check out the Christmas markets, the outdoor ice rink in Toronto and see the beautiful — and hopefully snowy — landscape of the city from above from my hotel room on Christmas Day. I’ll watch the new year come in from a bar in London, a town I’ve had to opportunity to explore, experience and make home.

The holidays are about homecoming, but what’s much more exciting and fulfilling than going home is making new places home. Experiencing festivities in different places and with different people changes what the festivities mean to me, taking me out of my cozy Christmas comfort zone.

Plus, it makes me appreciate my family and friends all the more. It’s made me determined to reach out to them at other times, not just the holidays. And I’ve never got so emotional over receiving an advent calendar from my parents before.

If you can spend the holidays in a different city or in a different country than you’re used to, I’d recommend it. Even just staying on-campus could provide you with a new experience and different viewpoint. It may not be the familiar, nostalgic, family Christmas experience that you expect; but that’s why it can be so wonderful. 

- Jen Tombs is currently on exchange at Western. 

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