Last weekend, as we unpacked our Christmas tree and decorations, we found that something was missing—or maybe I should say, Someone. Like baby Jesus. Plus Mary and Joseph.

Our beautiful nativity set made the overseas move in great condition…but apparently the holy family missed the boat. We ended up taking a stand-alone Mary, Joseph, and Jesus set (much smaller and a totally different style) and putting them in the manger. Then we looked at each other and shrugged. “It works,” we said.

Our Christmas customs feel a little like that mismatched nativity to me. We love our family traditions and try to keep them the same from year to year. However, we need to work with what we have and where we are, so they end up looking slightly different each Christmas. We’ve moved several times on the “winter cycle”—moving in December or January. That means we have our suitcases, our family, and very little else over the holidays. So we put up a couple of simple decorations, bake one or two favorite foods, and then we read books and play songs that set the advent atmosphere for us.

1. Candles.

To be honest, I like to light candles year-round, but there’s something about the holiday season that makes it necessary. Maybe it’s because night falls earlier, or that they complement the already-lit tree, or that there are so many good Christmas-scented candles out there. Lighting candles around the house just reminds me that this is a sacred time.

2. Advent calendar.

As a kid, I loved my cardboard advent calendar with the chocolates behind each door, but as a parent I’m not crazy about my kids eating candy before bed every night in December. So I’m thankful that when we’re abroad I don’t see displays of chocolate advent calendars at every store checkout. Instead, we have a quilted advent wall hanging that my sister made for me. It’s a nativity scene, and each night a family member gets to button on a figure. We’ve rolled it up and taken it with us in our suitcase at Christmas several times. We’ve also had years when we just used a paper chain to countdown the nights (see #6 below).

3. Books.

Growing up, once we put up our Christmas tree, I would disappear behind it to read. Nothing puts you in the Christmas mood like snuggling up in a blanket with a good book and the tree lights glowing. In December, we swap out our usual nightly picture books for special holiday ones in December and read them by the tree (if we have one up). Looking for some suggestions? Check out The Polar Express, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, The Little Drummer Boy, The Crippled Lamb, and Red Ranger Came Calling. Paperbacks work best for traveling.

4. Music.

Thank goodness for the rise of digital music. I easily can bring my personal music library abroad without the weight of that large CD binder. But since my own collection has holes and I can’t turn on the radio here to get my Christmas favorites, I just fire up the good old internet to get to the classic stuff I’m missing. Thanks, YouTube, Amazon Music, and Spotify!

5. Making decorations.

We didn’t bring a wreath abroad with us. For Thanksgiving I put a wreath my preschooler had made in school up on our door, and I got so many compliments on it! Plus, he beamed every time he looked at it. So this week I’m going to check out this article and make some decorations. Our favorites in the past have been red and green paper countdown chains, paper snowflakes, pine branches, and salt dough ornaments. Simple and easy to make wherever you find yourself this Christmas.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Favorite Foods: We bake a variation of Viennese striezel bread that my mom has been making since she was a child to serve on Christmas morning. Other than that, we make Christmas food easy on ourselves and don’t have many “must-haves” for Christmas Day. Tree-shaped sugar cookies are always welcome, though.
  • Christmas movies: White Christmas, Elf, Home Alone, and Love Actually (for the adults). If I can handle it I’ll sometimes put on Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer for the kids while I’m in the kitchen baking.

What are your favorite Christmas traditions that come with you around the world? If you’re traveling over Christmas, how do you deck the halls in your temporary lodging?