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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?