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Experiencing Christmas in the UK as an international student

By guest blogger WINNIE TSUMA


Christmas was different for everyone in 2020 – including Chevening Scholar Winnie Tsuma. She tells us how she managed to make the best of her first Christmas in the UK, discovering new traditions and creating lasting memories.

Chevening Scholar Winnie Tsuma

Despite being a global holiday, different countries have different ways of celebrating Christmas, including all the foods and festivities that come with it. In Kenya, during this holiday, cities usually become deserted as people travel to their rural homes to celebrate with their loved ones. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, houses and churches are decorated with colourful balloons, paper ribbons, or flowers and green leaves. On Christmas day, food is normally at the top of the agenda and people toil away to prepare some of the most popular meals for Christmas, which include Biriani and Nyama Choma (barbequed goat/cow meat). Children also get to wear their finest clothes purchased specifically for that day and families have special outings. This is a typical Kenyan Christmas – the kind that I am used to.


This year however, things were different. As an international student studying in Bristol in the UK, I chose to stay for the holidays, as this was a more practical and cheaper option for me considering the expensive flight tickets, COVID-19 international travel restrictions, and, most importantly, the numerous assignments that were due in January. This meant that I would get to experience Christmas away from my family for the first time in my life – and this Christmas took place during a year like no other.


It was an experience that I can summarise as one filled with mixed emotions. I had moments when I felt sad and broke down into tears, especially after talking to my children, as I felt like I was missing out on the Christmas activities. Additionally, the plans that I had made with various Kenyan friends to meet in London had to be put on hold due to changes in restrictions. However, I was ready to make the most of this time by experiencing Christmas in the UK in the best way I could, despite the circumstances.


The festive season in the UK is an amazing time, although extremely cold, with darkness engulfing the skies as early as 4.00pm. I observed a number of festive traditions in the weeks leading up to Christmas. First, the streets were illuminated by beautiful and artistic lights which always left me in awe.

Christmas lights in the cities of Bath and Bristol

It was also particularly interesting to note how big of a deal Christmas trees were. All the houses in my neighbourhood in Clifton had glistening Christmas trees deliberately placed by the windows for passersby like myself to marvel at. In Kenya, it is the ‘new generation’ that has adopted this culture of Christmas trees. I grew up in a household where it really didn’t matter, and it was the same for other households around. As an adult, I was also not keen to put them up in my house during Christmas. Now, though, it is definitely a tradition that I have gladly picked up on!

Christmas tree outside Bath Abbey

I also took the opportunity over the Christmas period to speak to classmates, to reflect on what we had learnt so far and learn about each other’s cultures. Our classmate from the UK also gave us gifts – a Christmas tradition we don’t really have in my own country. Her gesture really made me feel appreciated in this faraway land, particularly being away from family at this time. And I also got to try out the popular British dish, Sunday roast and Yorkshire pudding!

A British classic: Sunday roast and Yorkshire pudding

Before restrictions changed, I was also able to visit the city of Bath. Bath is such a beautiful place, which accorded me a much-needed change of scenery and refreshed my mind, so I was ready to embark on my university assignments.

Iconic Pulteney Bridge in Bath

If there is something the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me, it is to be able to adjust and thrive even when things do not go as planned. I may have wanted to be home for Christmas, but I couldn’t be, and even so, I was still able to make the best of it and enjoyed the holiday with friends – which is essentially what Christmas is about. Whatever this holiday season may have looked like for you, I hope you did enjoy it as well. I wish you a happier, safer and a more hopeful 2021!

All views expressed in this blog are the views of the guest blogger and do not represent the views of the GREAT campaign.