Christmas away from home can be tough when you are travelling with children, but there is no need to lose the magic!
There is no point trying to recreate the atmosphere you had at home – it’s physically impossible to start with, just through the lack of space! No, instead, you have to embrace the difference. Start new traditions. Make different memories.
Last year, we spent Christmas on a campsite in Tarifa, Spain. It was difficult because our children still believed in Santa so we had a few logistical nightmares to contend with. But our campsite manager was a darling and allowed us to store secret presents away in safe storage. As helpful as that was, it wasn’t the lack of present-hiding-spaces that caused us an issue but actually the lack of a full-size oven!
Whilst we were trying to establish a new Christmas tradition in the Sun, the kids were determined to have a Christmas Dinner, as it was the first roast dinner in over 4 months. They were not prepared to compromise on this one small detail.
This prompted us to look at a chalet or apartment for a couple of days, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day. Actually, it was a really great idea, because the temporary change of scenery was what made our Christmas so special.
We weren’t just excited about the dinner and the presents, we were also excited about real beds, a proper toilet, and a bath!
There is no doubt about it, every time I look back at our photo’s of Christmas and New Year in Tarifa, I have a warm feeling that bubbles and overflows. I can almost smell and feel the atmosphere all over again. It was such a special time.
Not least because our kids received the least presents they have ever received, yet were the happiest and most grateful they have ever been. Our Festive Christmas in the Sun was not about material giving, it was about spending quality time together as a family – being open to change, embracing new experiences and seeing how other cultures celebrate Christmas too.
If you are considering travelling over the Christmas, here are some tips to help you make the most of it;
PACK FOR CHRISTMAS EARLY
I thought about Christmas in August. Before I sold all of our Christmas decorations I went through the boxes and raided them for lightweight small items that could be packed and saved back for Christmas in the van.
One of the best items I packed was my Christmas advent bunting. Not only did it add a sprinkling of festivity inside the van, it also had 24 little pockets. Inside each day I added a piece of confectionery or a small token gift I had collected from different towns and cities we had visited during our travels.
I also packed small Christmas signs and a few hanging hearts, together with some craft materials for handmade decorations.
TOP TIP: Don’t forget to pack a staple gun, blue tac and sellotape. My staple gun and remover were used countless times during our travels, and I lost count of the number of times I leant it out too! They are great for hanging items, without leaving marks.
PICK A PITCH AND A GOOD CAMPSITE/AIRE
What kind of Christmas do you want? If you want a traditional English Christmas with a roast dinner, carol singing, a get-together and the odd drunken Santa, then perhaps it is worth looking for a campsite with a good ex-pat community?
We stopped at a number of campsites that had a great schedule of Christmas activities. Some campsites like Bonterra Park in Benicassim had a fantastic group of regular motorhomers who meet up every year to celebrate Christmas together. We stayed there to enjoy the Halloween Festivities – and already the choir singers were starting practice for Christmas. It’s a fantastic park for the ‘older’ motorhomers too (without sounding rude!). It’s quiet, yet active. Reserved without being boring. Good clean fun is how I would describe it.
However, if, like us, you want to experience a cultural Christmas, it is worth exploring towns and villages with a traditional local Christmas for the country you are in.
We knew that we wanted to stop in Gibraltar before Christmas to stock up on some items we could not buy elsewhere and to touch base with some British shops! I had to buy some Christmas PJ’s (a tradition I started when the children were born) and some Advent Calendars (I was never going to get away with not having those). Knowing that Gibraltar was on our route, we looked around this area for a place to stop and enjoy a traditional Spanish Christmas.
We picked a campsite called Camping Valdevaqueros in Tarifa. It was a lovely quiet site a stone throw from a 9km white sandy beach, and a haven for spectacular kite surfing. I read up about the lovely town of Tarifa (that also featured in my favourite book, The Alchemist) and decided it was a perfect pitstop. The town had a wonderful nativity evening where all of the town’s people come together to turn the castle into a nativity scene with farm animals, traditional costumes and local cuisine.
Whilst Camping Valdevaqueros was quiet, it was what we wanted for our family. We hoped to experience Christmas and New Year as Spanish people do, and Tarifa did not disappoint!
PARK BESIDE A TREE
This might sound crazy but it can be a lot of fun. With the absence of a Christmas tree, you may want to be resourceful and create your own!
We parked beside a small tree when we arrived in Tarifa, and over the month of December, we gradually added lights and baubles to it, creating our own Christmas Tree. Soon, our neighbours added items and before you knew it, we had a magnificent festive display that lit up all of our pitches!
It’s amazing what a bit of creativity and resourcefulness can achieve. Have a go…I bet it catches on!
BUY BATTERY AND SOLAR POWERED LIGHTS
I packed about 10 packs of battery powered fairy lights before we left the UK. To say they were useful would be an understatement! When wild camping, they lit up our interior like a Christmas tree! No need to waste the leisure battery on lighting, just a few fairy light add enough light to be able to cook and read, whilst providing a lovely ambiance to the van.
Ours were so effective, we kept them up for the remainder of our trip. Fairy lights aren’t just for Christmas you know!
I also packed a set of solar powered outdoor lights because it is a shame to not make use of the Spanish sunshine during December. They charged during the day and created a great atmosphere around our outside eating area at night. Perfect.
EMBRACE THE LOCAL CULTURE
If you read our blog New Year, New Friends, you will know that the Spanish have a weird New Year ritual that could leave you coughing and spluttering – but it is their way of welcoming in the New Year, therefore, when in Rome…or Spain…
What I am saying is, you must respect the local traditions. If we had turned up at the local bar, hoping to bring the new year in with some drunken revelry and a badly sung version of Auld Lang Syne, we would have been mistaken. It’s not about bringing our traditions to the local people – but seeing how the local people celebrate it and include us.
If however, you do want to experience Christmas on the 25th December and sing Auld Lang Syne on the 31st, there are plenty of ex-pat communities throughout Europe, where you can sing to your heart’s content! Benidorm is one of them!
DONT EXPECT THE SAME
Christmas in Spain, for example, gets off to a rather peculiar and unofficial start on December the 22nd when children can be heard calling out the numbers and prizes of the Lotería de Navidad, Spains most popular lottery. When you hear the melodic sounds of the prize draw on the radio, you know ‘Christmas time has arrived’.
Yet, the Spanish do not really celebrate Christmas on December the 25th like other nations. The big celebration is on the 5th January when many families make their way to their favorite bakeries to order a Roscón de Reyes (a ring-shaped cake), which they will enjoy for breakfast the following day (6th).
Children from all over Spain attend parades on the 5th January to see colourful floats roll through each town with the Reyes Magos (three kings) and their pages showering candy over delighted kids shouting ‘Aqui, Aqui!’ (Here, Here!).
It is the three kings, not Santa, who will traditionally arrive from the east on the 6th January to leave gifts for the well-behaved children.
So, you can see from just one country’s perspective, that Christmas celebrations can be very different. Whilst we still celebrated Christmas on the 25th December, it was very quiet. Of course, we took the opportunity to celebrate again with the Spanish people on the 5th and 6th January!
If this is your first Christmas away from the UK, just be open to something new and a little bit different, especially if you are going to venture away from the main ex-pat communities.
PREPARE IN ADVANCE (FOR KIDS)
If you are travelling with children over Christmas, it is wise to be prepared. I was crafty and started squirrelling away small presents as we were travelling. Our son received a much-wanted toy monkey from the top of the rock in Gibraltar. Our daughter was delighted with her plush dog that was secretly stashed away from our visit to Mont Blanc…
But I have to say, our families were very organised too – they packed us off with birthday and Christmas cards for both children, containing euros that they had already exchanged. We were very grateful for their organisation and forethought. As you can imagine, the kids were delighted to have money to spend in the shops!
START A NEW TRADITION
We all have traditions that we will always honour…our Christmas PJ’s and movie box on Christmas Eve is one of ours, but it is difficult to continue some family traditions when you are on the road – making reindeer food for example. So, as a family, we thought about starting a new tradition, something that we could do anywhere…
Now, every year, we take a crazy Christmas family photo and frame it in the same picture frame. We also buy a snow globe from somewhere new and use that to wake each other on Christmas morning. We make Chris wear a stupid Christmas hat all day on the 24th December and on New Years Day we take a long walk, if possible, taking a refreshing swim in the ocean.
Starting a new tradition marks the beginning of new stories, new memories, and a great new travelling life!
PICKING THE PERFECT PRESENT FOR A TRAVELLING PARTNER
Finally, what do you buy the travelling wanderlust for Christmas? When space is a premium and weight is a no-no…
Well, here are just three of our best ideas;
I purchased this lovely compass for Chris with the name of our website and slogan ‘Not all who wander are lost’. I wanted it to be sentimental and practical. It was great for helping us figure out which way the sun would rise in the mornings so that we could situate the van in the best place to catch the afternoon sun!
OMG! This is the best game on earth! Mexican Train will have you absorbed for hours! A game can last anything between two and four hours depending on the number of players and the amount of alcohol being consumed.
It is a game that I would easily play every night. Our kids love it. Our neighbours love it. We love it. A MUST HAVE game for every motorhome!
A dear friend purchased me a travel journal and gave it to me as an early Christmas present. It was such a lovely idea. I used the journal every day to record our whereabouts. I wrote down every campsite and aire we ever stayed at, together with the price, GPS coordinates and a short review.
I have looked back over the book hundreds of times, not just to refresh our own memories but to help other travellers too. It’s great to share a recommendation, but it’s even better to give them the GPS coordinates!
I even packed my European Travel Journal when we moved to Nicaragua because I wanted to be able to share our experiences and recommendations with other travellers on various social media forums.
A travel journal is one of the most useful presents you will ever buy – plus it doubles up as a treasured keepsake long after it has been completed
Wherever you are or whatever you are doing this Christmas season, I wish you all the joys of travelling and a magical time with your loved ones!