Christmas in Jakarta: It’s Just Not the Same

Is it bad that I almost forgot it was Christmas?  I suppose that’s what happens when you live across the world from home.  This is actually the second consecutive year I’ll be spending the holidays abroad, and being away from my family for a second year in a row is a little bit of a bummer.

Christmas Jakarta 4

Last year Aaron and I spent Christmas on the island of Mindanao, Philippines, and went on to celebrate New Year’s on neighboring Camiguin Island.  Being away from home was difficult last year.  But I suppose that fact that Aaron and I were traveling around, constantly moving from one amazing place to the next, served as a constant distraction and made being away from home a little easier.  Plus, spending New Year’s motorbiking around a tropical island and celebrating in true Filipino fashion (i.e. with lots of rum and lots of fireworks) was a pretty perfect way to ring in the new year.

Even still, spending the holidays away from both of our families was difficult for us.

I thought the second go-around would be easier but it’s actually a little bit harder.  It’s odd to make the transition from traveling long term to living abroad.  I think being stationary and not having the constant distraction of new adventures on the road makes being away from family that much more difficult.  I think things would be different if Aaron and I would have had some fantastic trip planned for the holidays, but unfortunately Aaron only gets two days off for Christmas and another couple for New Year’s.  We ultimately decided to schedule our travels in January when things will be less crowded and less expensive. So instead of lounging on a beach somewhere in Indonesia, we’ll be celebrating Christmas right here in Jakarta.  And honestly, spending the day cooking tons of food and having a movie marathon sounds kind of awesome right now.

Christmas Jakarta 1

I actually didn’t think the Christmas holiday would exist in Jakarta, a city where mosques outnumber churches a million to one (I’m not positive of that statistic).  But it turns out that Christmas is kind of a big deal here.  Everywhere I go there are Christmas trees (artificial, of course) decorated with festively colored bulbs and twinkling Christmas lights.  And there’s tinsel strewn along every fence and shrub.  For the past few weeks there has been Christmas music playing everywhere (Mariah Carey’s Christmas album is a big hit in Jakarta).  The complex I live in– which is basically a bunch of apartment buildings clustered around a mall – has had constant celebrations for weeks.  Every weekend there are elaborate fireworks shows and there was even a Christmas tree lighting ceremony that was attended by hundreds of giddy Jakartans.  I would have never expected that Christmas was such a big deal here.

Christmas Jakarta 3

It’s nice that there is such a festive atmosphere in Jakarta (although I could do without Mariah), but it’s just not the same as being back in California.  It doesn’t really feel like Christmas and I have to keep reminding myself that it’s only days away.  Perhaps it’s the weather, which consistently lingers at 90°F (32°C) with a humidity of 80%.  But I think the real reason it doesn’t feel like Christmas is because I’m not around family.

For me, Christmas has always been about hanging out with family for days at a time.  If I were back in California right now I know exactly what the next few days would look like.  After years of practice I now have my Christmas routine down pat (the logistics get a little complicated with my large and complex family).

There’s always a lengthy visit with my dad in San Diego, where my sister Jamie and I get cozy on the couch, talk with my dad and stepmom for hours on end and exchange gifts.  Afterwards, we usually drive an hour north to Orange County where two of my sisters live.  My mom, my four siblings and their families and friends all crowd together at my sister Lynn’s house where we spend Christmas Eve drinking bubbly Prosseco, cooking insane amounts of food and playing the card game Peanuts.  Peanuts is kind of like a communal game of solitaire and I honestly can’t remember a family gathering when we haven’t played this game for hours on end.  Things tend to get very competitive and sometimes downright vicious.  And there is always a lot of cursing and name calling involved (I’m looking at you Lynn and Ali) but it’s all said with love.  Outsiders just don’t understand the antics of my slightly crazy family, but my family is kind of awesome.

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On Christmas Day I drive a little further north to the town of Ojai to spend the day with Aaron’s family.  His mom, Cindy, tends to spoil us kids with endless presents so we always have marathon present-opening sessions – they seriously last for hours.  Not to mention she’s a great cook and we’re usually spoiled with a dinner of eggplant Parmesan and a dessert of homemade pumpkin and apple pies.  And between Aaron’s two brothers there’s always a glass of bourbon or wine in my hand.  It’s definitely a good time.  This year’s festivities will be particularly special given that Aaron’s youngest brother John just got engaged to his awesome fiancé Lauren last week.  Aaron and I both are incredibly bummed that we won’t be there to celebrate.

On the drive back from Ojai to San Diego I usually drop in on my dad’s side of the family in Los Angeles, where I meet my dad at my aunt’s house.  She always cooks up the most delicious Mexican food in the world.  There’s home cooked beans, handmade tamales stuffed with cheese and green chilis and her signature salsa (which is delicious and super spicy, just the way I like it).  I definitely get my obsession with Mexican food from his side of the family.

Christmas is always a jam-packed few days and there is occasional drama as with most families.  But I like my Christmas routine and I’m going to miss it this year.

Christmas Jakarta 5

It took being abroad for me to really understand that, for me, Christmas is all about family.  And while I’m loving this experience of living in Jakarta, being here this month has been bittersweet.  Luckily I have Aaron and we’ll have our own mini-version of Christmas.  There is sure to be lots of food and lots of Skype sessions with the family.

How do you cope with spending the holidays away from family?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

20 thoughts on “Christmas in Jakarta: It’s Just Not the Same

  1. Very true. It can be so weird spending Christmas away from home, especially when the weather is totally different. When I was living in Melbourne, I was lucky in that my parents actually came out to visit me. We had a lovely day, but like you said, it wasn’t the same. The truth is that while I love travelling and the spontaneity of it, at Christmas, I do like my routine. I like wearing big woolly jumpers and snuggling by the fire in my parents’ living room, watching the Queen’s Speech, and sitting down to my dad’s exceptional turkey dinner. Being in Melbourne was great fun, but it didn’t really feel like Christmas. Hope you have a lovely one, though, in spite of being away from family. The movie marathon sounds like a great plan! 🙂
    Katie @ Second-Hand Hedgehog recently posted…My Top 11 Posts of 2014

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way Katie! Seriously I just remembered that it’s Christmas Even a couple of hours ago. I’m definitely going to miss my hectic Christmas routine this year but I am glad that Aaron gets a couple of days off and we really do have a huge feast and movie extravaganza planned 🙂 I hope you have a lovely holiday 🙂

  2. Ahhh Justine wat a sweet post! Im glad for you that there are some
    Christmas festivities in Jakarta, the tree looks fantastic. We will really miss you guys over Christmas!! Wish the Star Treck transporter system was a reality and we could all have our Christmas times together! Talk to you on Christmas! Miss and love you!

    1. Thanks Cindy! Well, I am very sad that we’re missing Christmas number two. It’s really not easy being so far away from everyone, especially at Christmas! I think Bill should invent the Star Trek transporter for Aaron and I. Because if there’s anyone who could do it, it’s Bill! Talk to you soon 🙂

  3. My Christmas is shaping up poorly here in Medellin…none of my local friends will be around and I’m starting to think I’ll be spending it alone! Except for when I’m skyping with my family, that is. I actually think Colombians celebrate Christmas Eve more than Christmas Day, so I think heading out on Christmas Day I’ll be able to find fun things to do. Plus I just got my new camera (thanks, family!!) so I’m excited to get out and about and start shooting like crazy!!

    Merry Christmas Justine, I hope it’s a great one despite being away from family this year!
    Leah recently posted…Paying it forward this Christmas and how you can, too (Giveaway)

    1. Oh no! That’s such a bummer. But I’m so excited that you got your camera. I have no doubt that you’ll be able to entertain yourself just walking around and snapping photos! My brother-in-law is Colombian…actually he and his family are in Cali for Christmas! Anyway, I know that in his family they celebrate on Christmas Eve and they open presents at midnight that night. So I imagine people will be partying hard that night and it should be fun just wandering around on Christmas Day. I hope you have a great day. I’m about to get started on cooking a vat of mashed potatoes, so I imagine my day will be pretty good 😉

  4. Hey Justine and Aaron! I can empathise with you this Christmas – last year Dan and I were travelling in Brazil and this year we’re living in Wellington, NZ – a far cry from the grey cold UK with all the family crammed around the dinner table! Jakarta looks very festive and I’m sure it will have a great atmosphere. Hope you have a very Happy Christmas! Thanks for some excellent blogging this year, you always bring a smile to my face and add fuel to my never ending desire to travel. Here’s to a happy, healthy and travel filled 2015!!
    Kate & Dan recently posted…Canaima National Park – Finding a Lost World

    1. Thanks for the kind comments Kate! Well, you know I’m a huge fan of your blog and your travel stories too 🙂 I hope you and Dan have a wonderful Christmas and New Year’s in New Zealand. I imagine you will! I’m excited to just chill out for a couple of days with Aaron. Plus, I’m excited to get a better idea of how Indonesians spend the Christmas holiday. It’s always an adventure here in Jakarta!

    1. Thanks Renuka! Happy holidays to you too 🙂 It ended up being a quiet day but it was nice. The Christmas atmosphere in Jakarta was unexpected but it was a nice little slice of home.

  5. I’ve spent two Christmases in Japan and although Christmas is not a holiday there, one would have to be blind or deaf not to realize it’s Christmas season. That said, in Japan, Christmas is “celebrated” for commercial reasons and I have worked on a Christmas Day (in 2008) in Japan – but that didn’t bother me at all.
    Rashaad recently posted…Birthday Weekend

    1. I found that Christmas seemed really commercial here too. They definitely don’t celebrate it the same way they do in the U.S. Culturally it’s just very different. Although it was fun seeing how Indonesians celebrate! Luckily Christmas Day is a national holiday here, so my boyfriend got the day off. But Christmas Eve was not a holiday, so he had to work!

  6. I hope you had a great day of cooking and movie watching. I have to say Christmas in China has been fun. Without a constant inundation of Christmas music and commercials to buy things I have actually wanted to watch Christmas movie and listen to some music too. Here too people get into Christmas, and strangely they celebrate in old town by buying silly string and having a huge silly string fight.
    They also wrap apples in fancy paper and give them to friends, teachers, and family. I too am lucky I have Tom to spend the holidays with. We had a great night with some friends on Christmas: 2 Brazillians, 4 Chinese, and one guy from Nepal. We had a big potluck of all kinds of food and talked about different celebrations in different cultures. It was fun and created a family feel. But sadly back to work today. Happy Holidays to you and Aaron!!!
    Terra recently posted…Datong (大同)

    1. I love hearing how other cultures celebrate Christmas. A silly string party sounds kind of awesome! That’s nice you were able to have a little dinner party. It seemed like everyone we knew left Jakarta for Christmas and New Year’s. I guess everyone goes on vacations with their families, so we were abandoned! But it was kind of nice having a few lazy days to just chill out and cook 🙂 Aaron says hi!

  7. Oh I hear you, I went to shanghai from christmas and while I loved all the pretty lights… it didn’t feel like Christmas at all. I actually came home on christmas day and just wanted christmas movies. Family is definitely what the holidays are all about.
    Rebekah recently posted…Christmas in Shanghai

    1. Totally! Despite all of the decorations around Jakarta, it’s just not the same and it really didn’t feel like Christmas at all. I hope you had a good day despite being away from your family!

  8. Hi Justine, I stumbled upon your blog when I was looking for a particular shop in Senayan. I haven’t really got the chance to read the rest of your blog and please don’t get me wrong, but the fact that you didn’t know that Christmas is a big holiday in Indonesia makes me think you don’t really know the country you’re in right now? I am sorry if you find my words a bit harsh, I don’t really know how to put it more lightly, but I think you’ve already figured it out by now that we Indonesians don’t really speak English so I apologize in advance for the possibility of misunderstandings. I implore you to take the time to explore the real Indonesia and hang out with real Indonesians, that way you’ll have more stories to tell when you get back home. Cheers!

    1. Hi Ari. I don’t find your words too harsh. I’ve been in Indonesia for five months now and I’m still discovering new things everyday. This was my first Christmas in Indonesia and I honestly didn’t expect Christmas to be as big of a deal as it was. And that’s the truth…sorry if it offends you! Indonesia is a huge and complex country and I’m trying my best to learn as much as I can. BTW, your English is perfect 🙂

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