Same lyrics, different melodies: Coping with an expat Christmas
Read this interesting blog about not being "home" (wherever that is) for Christmas. I found it a little cynical .. although I understand. Everyone who celebrates Christmas seems to have their own idea of a "genuine" Christmas, i.e. what it should be, what it means, what accouterments should come with it. (I think it's called "tradition" haha). Maybe it's based on that one perfect Christmas from childhood where everything came together in a symphony of smells, tastes, sensations, and thrills. For me it was the magic of going to bed with a few paltry gifts under the tree, only to wake up to find the living room practically strewn wall to wall with silvery wrapped presents. See, there really IS a Santa Claus! Even if his handwriting was eerily similar to my father's, I chose to believe. My mom's initials are S.C., so even if the cards were signed from "S.C.," I ignored the irony and chose to believe they stood for "Santa Claus". Even though I loathed going to midnight mass at church, and sat sleepily through the service, yawning as if my jaw would come apart, that memory goes down with the whole Christmas package (pun intended).
My ideal Christmas is located in New England (think Currier & Ives) with snow on the ground, getting a sled and a breathtaking Scarlet O'Hara doll from Santa. My mom was in a choir that year that performed in gold paper dresses (don't ask me how they pulled THAT off) doing great hits from Andy Williams and Herb Alpert. One of my favorite Christmas songs is the great chart-buster "The Bell That Couldn't Jingle" and I love it because of its obscurity. Another favorite was Alan Sherman's "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (not the usual one!) (All these songs traveled with us on my dad's reel-to-reel tape deck). I think of my parents dressing up, dad in his red sweater and Santa tie, drinking a cup of tea while waiting for mom to come out, in a great whiff of Chanel No. 5, her ears sparkling with gold earrings and her wrists tinkling with bangle bracelets.
So how are we to live up to that New England standard, living overseas? New traditions crept into the family lore. In Japan of the early 1960's it was hard to get Christmas wrapping, so the cry on Christmas morning was "SAVE THE BOWS!" Gifts were unwrapped carefully and the paper was carefully folded into squares, saved for next year. I was in a performance at school, dressed in a hula skirt, and we danced to "Christmas Island". We used to go to some enormous banquet Christmas Eve, which was really more like New Years' Eve, with noise makers and music that went on into the wee hours of the night. That was the Japanese equivalent of midnight mass for me. I was so worried about getting home in time for Santa to come!
Brussels came in a close second for "Ideal Christmas". We made weekend trips to Germany (the REAL home of Christmas!) and stocked up on ornaments and decorations from there. Mom still re-uses tags from those days, with glitter and pictures of old Europe on them. There was snow on the ground, and we went to the dreaded midnight mass at a British Anglican church. So the agony became a little more bearable because it was done with an English accent. Very little.
Then came our move to the Philippines. The first obstacle, other than the weather, was finding an acceptable Christmas tree. We brought in a pathetic looking tree that may or may not have been in the pine family. Mom, against all odds, actually decorated it and made it look quite presentable (again, pun intended!) It wasn't the New England Christmas tree, but it, like Charlie Brown's tree, became part of our family history. Midnight Mass in Manila involved sweating and fanning, but I still yawned and loathed it. Check. One year it involved a typhoon. Okay, liquid snow; close enough. I'm pretty sure we had turkey too. Served by our maids in their Christmas aprons. Now there's a tradition that I'd like to bring back. These days, when we're all stuffed to the gills and the dirty dishes and cooking detritus spreads out towards the horizon, mom and I lean back and yell, "PACITA!" as if she would come running in her slippers and clean it all up.
All in all, we made do wherever we were, appreciating the unusual customs, incorporating the culture of where we were into making new traditions. We never wished we were back in the states, because, while that was "home" to most Americans, wherever we were was "home". And that was okay with me.