With the holiday season approaching and my life soon to be filled with travel adventures and the like – I’ve enlisted a few friends to help on a little Christmas project of mine. I’ll be spending Christmas abroad in New Zealand this year, but I’ve spent the holiday alone on the other side of the world once before.
I knew I wouldn’t be alone in having had a Christmas in a strange land, so I’ve asked a few people to share their experiences with spending the biggest holiday in Western culture in a different part of the world.
First cab off the rank is Heather from over at There’s No Place Like Oz. An American lass spending her first Christmas abroad, she’s finding adjusting to a Christmas of barbeques and blistering summer days every bit as challenging as I found a Christmas of snow and bitter cold a few years ago.
Got a Christmas story you’d like to share? Let me know and you could be featured here as well!
“Oh my gosh, how can you stand it?!”
I blink and look at the customer I’m serving, slightly confused.
“I’ve only been in the store for five minutes and this music is driving me insane. How do you deal with it all day?! I bet you’re going mad.”
The customer shakes his head and offers me a look of pity before collecting his groceries and leaving the store as quickly as his feet can carry him.
What he doesn’t know is that I am loving the Christmas playlist that’s been on loop for the past week at work. It’s helping me believe, if only for the next few hours, that though it’s warm and humid, Christmas is indeed just around the corner.
When I packed my bags and boarded a plane bound for Australia in May, I knew I was going to miss birthdays and major holidays with my family and friends back in the USA. I figured I’d miss Thanksgiving and Christmas at home, sure, but that I’d be too busy loving life in Australia for it to affect me too deeply. What I didn’t know or remotely expect was how challenging I would find the time between mid-November to the present.
Earlier today I heard “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and shook my head with a faint smile. To me, it looks like anything but Christmas.
So I want to share what Christmas does look like for me — or what it usually does. What it’s been looking like so far this year. And what I hope is yet to come for my first Christmas abroad.
The Heather of Christmases Past
Last year’s December in Virginia, USA
Christmas has always been one of my favorite times of the year. I love the holidays and am very close to my family. It may be hard for some to imagine, but at 30, this will be the first Christmas I’m not spending with my parents and sisters.
Over the years, the five of us have established a number of traditions:
- For as long as I can remember, we have always had electric candles in each of the windows of the house. As the sun sets, someone walks around to turn them on.
- Decorating the Christmas tree has been a family affair. When I was young, we each chose one new ornament for the tree every year. For the last 15 or so years, we always use white lights and glass ornaments.
- On Christmas Eve we attend the service at our church or a friend’s church. If I’m not in the spirit beforehand, I tend to be when I leave.
- After the Christmas Eve service, my family used to drive around neighborhoods that were known for light displays for an hour or so before turning home. Sadly we haven’t done that in ages.
- My maternal grandfather spends the holiday with us. I’ve worn a Santa hat for as long as I can remember on Christmas day, and the first time my grandfather spent it with us, I gave one to him too. We rock the hats.
Spending time together last year
- On Christmas morning we gather and each open one present and our stocking. We then take time to cook and enjoy breakfast together. We return to the tree and take turns opening presents, one at a time — something we started when I was young after my sisters and me tore through our presents in record time. We open every present except for one each. Christmas music plays in the background.
- My dad loves it, so we watch “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown” with him.
- After a nice evening meal, we watch each other open our last present of the day.
- For the last two years, I have been involved in the Christmas production at church. I can’t sing, but I can memorize lines like a champ. Being a part of the two casts was probably the best thing I ever did with my church. I met more people. I spent time developing relationships with those in shared scenes. I invested in my church family and was blessed for it.
Mary in 2008
- We usually don’t have a white Christmas, but from time to time it happens.
Little me in the snow
The path I shoveled to our front door last year
The Heather of Holiday-season Present
Can I be honest — no sugar cookie coating of the truth? The last few weeks have been a mental and emotional struggle. I’ve only voiced these feelings a few times for fear of sounding ungrateful for the experience of living in another country for a year. But I need to be real
with — and fair to — myself.
I’ve felt very sad and homesick since my parents returned home after a week-long visit in early November. Over the course of two months, I had 4 different visitors spend a total of four weeks with me. My parents’ stay marked the last of them, and I was left with this gap between November 12 and December 25 that has seemed infinitely long and lonely. When I first settled in Sydney after traveling for three and a half months, I was so busy with a new job, new flat, a few new friends, and visitors that I didn’t have time – or real reason – to feel lonely. But now the newness has worn off, the visitors are gone, and most of the friends I do have in the city are either busy or away. Loved ones back home have been posting Facebook statuses of Christmas cheer, and I haven’t been able to stop asking myself what in the world I am doing half a world away.
I need to openly acknowledge that this dip, this struggle, is just another normal (but slightly unwelcome) aspect of pursuing such a big life change. I’m not ungrateful because I would temporarily rather be somewhere else — I’m just missing home and the love and familiarity this time of year brings.
It may sound silly, but I have yet to wrap my head around the seasons in Australia being opposite to the ones at home. When I first arrived, I said it was winter, but secretly, I knew it was really summer. Now it’s December and I’m wearing sunscreen and sweating, but something in my brain refuses to fully grasp this. I suppose when your circadian rhythms have relied on certain times of year corresponding to particular seasons, it’s okay for your mind to be thrown for a loop when your new reality doesn’t match with the one you’ve always had. Just writing this feels ridiculous, but a few fellow travelers and expats have shared that they feel the same.
While I’m feeling homesick and wishing for (much) cooler weather to match my memories of the holidays, the Heather of holiday-season present hasn’t been totally sad.
A little love from home
When my parents asked what I wanted for Christmas, I didn’t have to think twice. They packed an extra bag for their visit and brought some products I was missing from home that I can’t find in Australia. They covered some of the meals we had together during their visit. And as an extra surprise, they brought my Christmas stocking and left it behind with a few goodies, making me promise I won’t touch it until Christmas day (so far, so good, but I almost peeked last night).
Last night also marked the first snow in Virginia. Reading all of the Facebook status updates about the weather was both comforting and maddening. Before I went to bed, my youngest sister emailed me with several photos. On her car she drew a heart and inside wrote “Heather”. In case I didn’t get the message, here’s the one she wrote on my car:
Signs of the holidays
I suppose I’ve had Christmas on my mind for months now! When I visited a koala hospital in August, I adopted koalas for my family as Christmas gifts. As soon as Christmas decorations appears in stores, I bought a strand of blue lights to put around the perimeter of my bedroom. A few weeks ago, I powered up the Christmas playlist on my iPod when I’m out for walks or a jog — and from time to time laugh while listening to someone sing about a white Christmas while I am wearing shorts and a t-shirt.
I’ve watched the Chrismukkah episodes of The OC. I bought a small pack of Christmas cards featuring koalas, kangaroos, and Santa — enjoying the beach, firing up the barbie, or playing cricket. And eager me had them addressed and mailed by December 2nd. At work, I secretly delight in the holiday music being piped in; I have weekly chats with a customer who plays one of the many Santas in the city; and I’ve tasted most of our Christmas range of goodies after representatives have come in to provide tastings.
The Heather of Christmas Future
With less than 3 weeks until Christmas and 10 more days of work between now and then (God help me!), I am eager to transition from homesickness to holiday cheer. One of my new friends plans to host a Christmas cookie baking day. A neighboring suburb is hosting an evening of carols on the same day as the holiday party at work. I may just head into the city tomorrow to see the decorations and tree at Martin Place.
As for Christmas day itself, I won’t be alone! Fortunate me has been invited to spend it with four different families, so if something falls through with one, I have somewhere else I can go. And after a sushi lunch with my host family, it will be time to call my own and wish them a merry Christmas and let them know how much they are loved and missed from the other side of the world.
You can read more of Heather’s experiences in the land down-under over at There’s No Place Like Oz. I’d thoroughly recommend it whether you’re a fellow traveler experiencing the country for the first time or you’re an Aussie native just curious about an outsider’s perspective on life in the great southern land.