When Jen Fruzzetti realized she’d be celebrating Christmas with other backpackers on an Australian beach, she invited her father to fly in from Philadelphia to join them.
Like many other holiday travelers, Fruzzetti wanted to connect with home in a way that was beloved and familiar as she spent the holiday in a foreign place.
Christmas in a hot climate “felt surreal,” said Fruzzetti, who traveled around the world with a backpack in 2008 and 2009. She found that giving Christmas gifts to her dad in person — clothing and art she had purchased in Cambodia — made the holiday in St. Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, seem more like the ones she remembered from her Philly childhood, despite all that was different.
“Of course no restaurants or grocery stores were open, so my dad spent half the morning traipsing around the city trying to find takeaway shops serving something to eat,” said Fruzzetti, 28. “It didn’t matter.it was 90 degrees out and too hot to eat on the beach anyway.”
Typically during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday period, tens of millions of Americans travel more than 50 miles away from home, according to annual research from AAA. For some, hiding the presents in a suitcase and hitting the road or hopping on a plane is a long-standing tradition. They’ve developed skills and traditions to enjoy Christmas away from home, often by connecting to a familiar aspect of the holiday no matter where they are, whether it’s a favorite food, a church service or even a tree in a hotel room.
David McCown of Boise, Idaho, is a veteran of Christmas travel. His wife is from Sweden, his mother lives in Italy and his siblings are spread out in other parts of western Europe. McCown adapts to the traditions of the place where he happens to be. In Hawaii, that means convincing his 4-year-old that Santa Claus sometimes wears flip-flops.
At his in-laws’, that means joining into a tradition of drinking vodka shots at Christmas dinner. “I don’t know if that’s Swedish tradition or just the males in her family’s tradition,” McCown said.
For those who aren’t staying with relatives, finding a festive meal can be difficult on Dec. 24 or 25. Many businesses close early Christmas Eve and stay closed the next day.
Eating early — before 4 p.m. — on Christmas Eve helps, said Linda Kramer of Gibbon, Minn. Her husband, a farmer, can’t get away from home in summer, so they often travel over the winter holidays.
“Christmas Day is usually a hunt for a restaurant,” said Kramer. “Better yet, if we stay in a hotel room with a kitchen we can make our own mini-feast.”
Religious services are also a part of Christmas for many travelers. “Christmas 2008 was tough,” said Corinne Dillon, who spent that holiday in Beijing alone. “I found that going to Christmas Mass — I’m Catholic — really helped a lot because it’s pretty much identical to the service in my home parish.”
Dillon, a New Jersey native who is now 26, ended up meeting some migrant laborers at the service at the church, known as the South Church or Southern Cathedral in Beijing, and sharing noodles with them afterward.
“It was only then I realized that Christmas wasn’t about lots of gifts, but about doing good,” she said. “I felt like that was the first and only Christmas where I’d done that.”
Kramer said church is the most important tie to Christmas her family found in their travels. “We find churches that are similar to the one we are going to at home,” Kramer said. “Although of course the people and location are different, we really like finding people who believe the same as we do, and worshipping with them.”
Santa and a Christmas tree are also very important. A guest at the Hotel Plaza Athenee in New York City spent $1,000 to have a designer decorate a Christmas tree in her room.
“We actually packaged it up afterwards and sent it back to her home in Florida,” said Karen Goldberg, the hotel’s marketing director.
Traditional foods can also be critical to enjoying Christmas in a strange place. Chefs at Hotel Plaza Athenee have prepared English pudding, the French dessert buche de noel, and stollen, a German holiday bread, for European guests who asked in advance.
A guest at Steamboat Grand hotel in Steamboat Springs, Colo., once left a pair of shoes outside of the room on Christmas Eve and asked hotel staff to ensure they were filled with fruit and nuts the next morning, said spokeswoman Loryn Kasten. That’s a popular European tradition.
Kasten said hotel guests frequently ask for decorated trees in their room, and a few times have requested direct contact with Santa.
“Santa knocks on the door and says hello,” said Kasten. “We’ve also had requests to have Santa call and talk to the kids, so we’ve done that too.”