Musings on an Expat Christmas


I received no Christmas gifts this year — unless I count my new milk frother, which looked very much like a gift in its festive holiday bag. But since I bought it myself on the way back from Hong Kong last week (the best $100 I’ve spent in a long time, by the way) — I don’t think it counts. And in a rare effort to be practical, I chose not to put up our pretty artificial tree, deciding that two indoor potted trees looked Christmassy enough decked out in their garlands of sparkling fairy lights. A few days ago, I poked my head inside a Manila department store, saw what looked like half the population of Manila swarming through its aisles, and decided that it was quite alright if Santa skipped our house this year. I don’t do crowds.

Okay, so you might suppose that my holidays have been sad and lonely given that there were no gifts under a nonexistent tree and my family is on the other side of the world — but the strange thing is that I have had a wonderful Christmas season. I asked Martin not to buy me anything. Does our house really need more made-in-China junk lying around? Christmas Day itself was quiet and peaceful (I did roast a chicken with stuffing) and best of all, there was no pressure to have fun and be happy. Why on earth is there so much pressure put on a single day? How can any one day live up to a three-month buildup? Particularly in the western world, there is almost always a sense of anti-climax (and/or relief?) after the Butterball turkey has been eaten and dinner dishes have been washed and put away. That’s it? It’s over already? What will I replace all the Christmas hype with?

This morning I sat down and figured out that this is the 23rd year I have spent Christmas and New Year’s outside of Canada. There was a time, early in my expat life, when I chose to go “home for the holidays”. Now, I choose to stay at my own home, which is on a tropical island in the Philippines. These days I prefer visiting my Canadian family in the more relaxed “off-season”. To be honest, I don’t find those big family Christmas gatherings as appealing as I once did: racing around from mall to mall in bumper to bumper traffic, hoping to stumble onto the perfect gift; coping with the ever-present risk of being beaten to a pulp if you happen to grab the last high-demand kids’ toy off the shelf; wasting time standing in slow-moving check-out lines while wearing hot, bulky clothing — and oh yes, spending lots of money. Then there’s the stress of cooking for twenty people, some of whom you might not even like anymore…

No thanks. Skype works just fine.

I hope I don’t sound cynical. I do admit that I prefer the Christmas season over the Big Day itself. I loved seeing Hong Kong and Manila all dressed up for Christmas. I even loved hearing Christmas music piped into the streets. I enjoyed giving my Filipino neighbors money as gifts, recognizing how lucky I am to be in a position to give rather than needing to receive.

I don’t need presents to make me happy. I’m already happy and that’s the greatest gift there is. I realize that many expats do go home and have a thoroughly wonderful holiday with their families and friends. And not everyone gets caught up in the shopping vortex. At the end of the day, it is the spirit of the holiday which matters most.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your own holidays. Even if you haven’t, the good news is that in a few days, they will all be over — until next year…


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