I realized a couple days ago that it’s been four years since I celebrated Christmas in San Diego. Four Christmases in Europe is a blessing, three of those as a resident here – but despite my gratitude for white slopes and tasting weihnachtskugel and trying to sing Silent Night in Swiss-German… one does have moments of nostalgia. Moments where you miss the way you ‘did things back home.’
Moments where you miss your friends, family, loved ones who are far away. Especially when some of those loved ones are facing major illnesses.
It helps that I had to learn when young to leave my traditions adjustable – moving from South African hot summer days where you spend Christmas in the pool to the US, was a pretty tough shift.
Our first Christmas in the US was horrible. Being in San Diego and being able to go for a walk along the beach helped, but it was rough to be away from the big family celebrations we were used to. We had a sad little Christmas tree that my sister and I decorated with gift cards that would normally go on the presents. As for presents – my sister and I each received one item. I still remember it, my gift was a copy of The Hollywood History of the World – which fed my teenage obsession of old movies and history. I loved that book – not just because it swept me into the world of Errol Flynn and Betty Davis, but also because it was such a courageous lone soldier under the tree… a tree that we were used to see bedecked with the weight of gifts and glitter.
I remember the four of us kneeling and praying for better Christmasses to come – of course, at 13 my definition of a ‘better’ Christmas was probably much different than the prayers lifted up by my parents. But I remember it clearly. I remember the feeling of bonding too – it was us four against the big unknown.
We had to learn to make new traditions – hot chocolate at the Hotel Del Coronado on Christmas Day, singing carols in English, faxing family back in South Africa Christmas wishes (back then it was a fax, today it’s an SMS or tweet!), go to the Coronado Christmas Parade, attending “Holiday Open Houses” at the houses of friends, coffee and cake at my sister-in-law’s house, driving to go see “Candy Cane Lane.”
We learned to be politically correct and say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Geseënde Kersfees” (A blessed Christmas.)
But we made it work and it became our new world and new traditions.
So I know it’s possible. But doesn’t mean it’s easy. And maybe I am less adaptable at 36 than I was 13. At 13 it was easy to be naive and bright-eyed. Now there are additional undercurrents to the nostalgia I feel as I am once again an expat building a life in a new country – sadness that it’s my fourth Christmas as a divorcee, worries about family who are ill, deep seated frustration at the gray hair(s – no, surely not plural!!!) I discovered in the mirror on Christmas morning. What a friggin stocking stuffer!! Santa, can I send those back???????
Luckily it’s hard to stay blue when you are surrounded by twinkling lights in the snow, walks through the white woods with family, drinking glühwein with a view of slopes, and sharing meals as new traditions build.
So what’s the secret to making the transition? My 13-year old self knew: Let go of the way you are ‘used’ to. Be open to new experiences and flavors (pureed chestnut pudding, for example), and learn the ways of the people you now are sharing the day with.
Most importantly: Let the past go and let the presents in.