8 festive ways to make the most out of your winter break

Did you know, there is no gift like the present? Thousands of international students stay in the UK over the winter break each year. It's an opportunity to learn more about UK culture, take a break from studying and connect with yourself and others.

From volunteering to homestays with local families to bringing in the New Year with a song and a dance - here are some ideas to help you enjoy the festive season in the UK in all its glory.

Two students sit together on a sofa at home surrounded by Christmas presents and a Christmas tree.

Get together with other international students who will be in the UK over the winter break.

1. Connect with fellow international students

As international students, you are in this together - if you want to be. If you'd prefer to spend this time alone, the following tips will still serve you well. But if you're keen to connect with fellow international students - it sounds simple - but just tell them. Speak to your coursemates, your housemates or other students in your university accommodation, and anyone, and everyone else, to find out who is going to be here over the winter break and who is keen to make plans - however big or small.

Maybe you're delighted to be here. Maybe you're missing home. Or a bit of both. Either way, someone else will be feeling similar to how you are and if you're open about it, it will make it easier to make deeper connections with the people around you. Spend time with your friends or use it as an excuse to make new ones (if you haven't quite found your people yet now's your chance). You could decorate a Christmas tree together, go to a Christmas market, make Christmas cookies or share a meal on Christmas day.

Students and staff at a retirement home gather around a trolley of freshly-wrapped Christmas gifts to give to residents.

Chevening scholars wrapping gifts for residents at a retirement home for Christmas day.

2. Give the gift of your time

Gift-giving is an act of lovingkindness, of thinking about others before ourselves - and in the UK people make a special effort to be generous around this time of year. Volunteering in your local community is one way to give be generous and give the gift of your time this winter. It is an excellent way for you to meet new people, feel connected, and have a positive impact during your time in the UK.

There are many frontline services and charities that welcome volunteers at this time - and you could do anything ranging from having a chat, to serving some food or playing a game of cards with someone who's keen to feel like part of something bigger. Retirement homes, hospitals, homeless shelters and women's shelters are always looking for volunteers to lend a helping hand and spread some festive cheer.

Here are some organisations in the UK where you can volunteer over Christmas, New Year and beyond: The Big Issue, Crisis, St Mungo’s, Shelter, Food Cycle and Age UK. You can also ask someone from the student union or volunteer service at your university to link you up with local volunteering opportunities.

An international student stands with a family of friendly British people around the Christmas dinner table.

Learn about British culture by spending time with a local family through HOST UK.

3. Spend some time with a welcoming British family

Staying in the UK over the winter break is a chance to meet new people, find out more about another culture or tradition and share in some Christmas celebrations. If you have local friends or classmates from the UK, there’s a chance you might find yourself invited ‘home’ and hanging up your stocking on Christmas Eve with a local person or family.

But if you don't have plans yet, why not find out more about ‘festive hosting’? Throughout the year, HOST UK matches international students with friendly British hosts for homestays of one day up to four nights. It’s a chance for you to learn more about British culture, share stories of your own and enjoy a well-deserved break from studying. Find out more and apply for Christmas and New Year stays, or for 2023 stays.

A Christmas market scene showing various stalls and a large and brightly-lit carousel.

Take a ride on a traditional carousel to feel as joyful as joyful can be.

4. Visit a Christmas market (or three)

Want to travel the world without leaving your city? Put on your warmest hat and scarf and head down to your local Christmas market. You could pick up some quirky local crafts to take back home at the end of your programme, take a ride on a traditional carousel to feel as joyful as joyful can be, or fill yourself up with some tasty international food - Bratwurst (a traditional German sausage) is a classic and you’ll usually be able to find vegan alternatives.

Head there alone or bring a friend or two and get into the spirit of the festivities. Glühwein - a hot spiced red wine made of cinnamon, orange and cloves - can be a good starting point. Mince pies are also a must. If you haven't tried them yet, take your chance while you still can as they are only available at this time of year.

If you'd like further information and inspiration on Christmas markets to visit, Visit England has curated a list of 14 of their top recommendations.

A tray of mince pies in the process of being made. They are sprinkled with a dusting of icing sugar.

Mince pies are a British winter classic (and no - they are not full of meat)

5. Taste your way through the festive season

The festive season in the UK is full of delights for your senses. From the street light displays, the sweet harmonies of carol singers, to the air so cold that you can (sometimes) see your own breath. The first thing that comes to mind when you think of the UK may not be food, but we have a couple of winter classics we recommend trying - even if it’s just for the experience.

First up - drinks. Hot chocolate is a must - with marshmallows and cream, if you dare. And if you’re still seeking some more warming up, follow it up with a mulled drink heated with sugar and spices - cinnamon, star anis, orange and cloves. Mulled wine is widely available in Christmas markets, pubs and supermarkets, but if you’re keen on some mulled cider or apple juice why not take to the kitchen. You can find recipes online, or just add a pre-prepared spice mix.

Second up - food. Mince pies, ginger biscuits and chocolate yule logs work well as festive snacks and desserts. But when it comes to mains, a classic British Christmas dinner is a must. They are traditionally centred around a stuffed roast turkey paired with a wide array of accompaniments - stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, roast potatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots and parsnips, Yorkshire puddings and pigs in blankets. Don't worry if you have special dietary requirements as there are many alternatives available whether you decide to cook up a feast at your student accommodation, go out to dinner at a pub or restaurant or dine with a friendly local family.

Sheets containing musical notes for Christmas carols with blurred Christmas tree lights in the background.

Midwinter songs traditionally existed to keep up people's spirits through the winter.

6. Fill your ears with seasonal sounds

Whether you like to sing or you prefer to listen, Christmas carols are a great place to find festive cheer. Dating back to before the 14th century, midwinter songs traditionally existed to keep up people’s spirits through the dark winter. Though many have Christian origins, there are plenty of secular festive songs to sing too from ‘White Christmas’, to ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ and ‘Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow’.

In the lead-up to Christmas, you’ll be able to hear carol singers in public squares, churches and townhalls and even some major train stations across the UK. One of the most famous gatherings of carol singers in the UK is at Trafalgar Square in London, where there is a full programme taking place throughout December. As an alternative in London, you could attend Christmas carols at the Royal Albert Hall before heading across to Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park which is just a short walk away.

If you’d rather stay a bit closer to home, find out what is going on at your university and if you want to set up your own carol party, karaoke or ‘sing-along’ session you’ll be sure to find other students who would love to join.

Ice skaters on the rink at The Brighton Pavillion Ice Rink. The Pavillion is lit in purple and looks grand, with a dusky blue sky in the background.

Over the festive period, you can skate beside some of the UK's most impressive historic buildings.

7. Get your skates on

Make the most of the cold weather by visiting a pop-up outdoor ice rink near you. Over the festive period, you’ll be able to skate beside some of the UK’s most impressive historic buildings, landmarks and town centres. Many ice rinks are closely accompanied by Christmas markets, and you’ll easily be able to find tasty hot drinks and snacks there to warm you up as soon as you get back on ‘dry land’.

If you want to visit one of the most magnificent outdoor ice rinks head across to the Royal Pavillion Ice Rink in Brighton. The Royal Pavillion, which you can enjoy from the ice, is a Grade I listed formal royal residence famous for its unique Chinese, Mughal and Islamic-inspired architecture. Alternatively, you could skate beneath the spectacular towers and turrets of Warwick Castle.

Bright orange fireworks going off at the Edinburgh Hogmanay celebrations above Edinburgh Castle.

Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh, bringing in the New Year.

8. Start the New Year on three, two, one...

New Year can be a time for reflection on the year that has passed and looking forward to what's coming next. But more than that, it's a time to celebrate. Across the UK, it's traditional to celebrate New Year's Eve - 31 December - by getting together with friends for parties, dancing, music concerts and street celebrations. These tend to go on way after midnight, but the focus is always on the countdown to the stroke of midnight. At this point, many people kiss and hug each other and sing Auld Lang Syne - a poem written by the Scottish author Robert Burns. Edinburgh’s ‘Hogmanay' is one of the greatest outdoor celebrations of New Year's Eve in the world.

One tradition specific to Scotland and some parts of northern England is 'first-footing'. The 'first-footer' is the first person to cross the threshold of a house after the new year and they are said to bring luck to the household in the coming year. They usually come bearing gifts such as whiskey, shortbread and fruit cake.

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