When I was pregnant with our first child, we made a proclamation to our extended family: We would not travel to visit them over the Christmas holiday with our kids. We decided that we wanted to spend Christmas at our own house with our growing family (all of our extended family lives at least 3 – 11 hours away). Family members are welcome to come visit us, we explained, but we were staying home to avoid the chaos and stress of traveling over the holiday and to embrace our own traditions with our little ones.
And so for 11 years, we did just that. Occasionally my parents or brothers come in to celebrate with us and sometimes it was just the five of us (yes, two more kids came along quickly).
But, last year, we decided to travel over the Christmas holiday – not to our extended family in the U.S. but instead to spend Christmas overseas – breaking our proclamation, kind of. And I was nervous. We had never traveled with the girls over the Christmas holiday. We love to travel as a family, but would I regret doing this over this special season? How would we figure out gifts? My youngest was six and I wondered, would she understand a “German Santa”? We were planning to leave in mid-December so we would miss many of our traditional American Christmas festivities – cookie exchanges, Cheekwood lights, dinners and parties with friends. We wouldn’t be pulling out all of our Christmas decorations and we wouldn’t even put up a Christmas tree.
We planned a 3 week trip through Germany and Poland (you can read more about where we went and what we did here) and stayed with friends. The first part of our trip was focused around European Christmas markets and holiday festivities leading up to Christmas day in Germany. We spent our time exploring beautiful towns and cities, visiting market after market with friends, enjoying meals and music and having one of our most special holiday seasons yet.
And now, as we begin preparing for the holiday season back in the U.S. at home, a part of me is wishing we were traveling back to Europe for the holiday season again. Instead, however, I am excited to adopt some of our best experiences spending Christmas abroad to our celebrations here at home too.
Here are the things that we loved about our travels to Europe with kids over the Christmas holidays and some ways we will incorporate them at home:
The gift of an experience
We had several conversations before the trip with our girls about how this experience was their holiday gift. I explained that in Germany, Santa is a bit different and that he would likely focus on small, local gifts and treats. I also explained that the jolly old elf knew we had to fly home with our gifts, so he would keep that in mind. But, again, the emphasis was on the experiences we would have – and spending time with each other and friends.
At home in Nashville I am planning to have similar conversations about how magical Christmas is when we focus on friends and family – like in Europe. I’m hoping to find smaller markets and local stores for gift giving and have friends over for small simple holiday meals – and maybe indulge in some German holiday Gluhwein and dampfnudel and perhaps attempt to make a french bûche de Noël with local friends this season too.
Set a kids budget for gifts
The European Christmas markets are full of festive holiday vendors selling beautiful gifts, toys and artisan goods. Some are located in small towns at unique locations and others transform big cities into a winter wonderland. We visited one in a forest and another in beautifully lit wine cellars. At the markets, we gave each girl a small budget to buys gifts for each other. They spent time wandering through the market stalls looking at gifts, observing their sisters (and what made their eyes light up), and then secretly purchasing small gifts for each other with their market budget. The following day, they would take turns giddily wrapping their gifts and placing them under the tree in our friends home. And on Christmas morning they were just as proud of what they had given each other – and watching their sisters open their specially curated European gifts – as the things they received themselves.
At home in the U.S., I will take them to a local Christmas market and small local shops here in Nashville and do the same – give them a small budget to spend on each other, wrap their gifts and then emphasize the opening of these special gifts from each other on Christmas morning.
Keep it simple
Limiting the size and amount of gifts around Christmas, due in part to the logistics of travel, allowed us to buy a few really special things for each other – special ornaments, wooden toys, little holiday lanterns. While traveling, we watched very little television and got off our devices – again, due to logistics – and, instead bundled up to explore the towns and cities. It was refreshing to keep things simple and focus on being together and with friends – and also to observe other cultures and ways of celebrating.
At home, we will try to remember to keep things simple and to focus on the special season of giving and thanks.
In the end, I’m reminded that the holiday season can be magical no matter where you choose to spend it!
Read more about our holiday trip to Europe here! Have you traveled overseas with kids during Christmas? Share in the comments below.