When you think of Christmas what do you think of (besides presents and family time)? Snow, hot drinks, chunky-knit jumpers and fluffy socks? For years, Christmas movies and songs have portrayed the holiday season as a magical, cold, snowy winter wonderland so it’s no wonder that most of us have this idea of what Christmas should be in our head (sorry Australians/Kiwis/everyone else on the Southern Hemisphere!).
That’s not what I think Christmas should be, though.
As I was growing up my family and I would spend Christmas abroad most years. It started when we went to Tenerife one year, which I suppose happened because people wanted a change. We loved it so much we went to Lanzarote the next year, Tenerife again the year after that, then Lanzarote again the following year.
After that my grandparents decided to move to mainland Spain so our Christmas holidays migrated with them. Whilst they were still house-hunting they took me over to Spain with them for a week. I remember that week being eventful with dodgy B ‘n’ B owners not letting us in until late when I was ill and being shown around a house by one of the estate agents from A Place in The Sun.
My mum flew out to join us on Christmas Eve and we stayed in a lovely apartment right on the sea front in Alicante. The weather was still warm and, instead of furiously ripping open mountains of presents the moment we woke up on Christmas day, we ran down to the beach and splashed around in the sea in Santa hats.
In Tenerife and Lanzarote the few years before Christmas morning was spent leisurely taking advantage of the lavish breakfast buffet on offer at the restaurant in the apartment complex. We’d then head down to the beach, cook a smaller Christmas dinner than we were used to and take an afternoon stroll by the seafront. At night I remember sitting on the balcony in the warm evening air, listening to the sounds of the waves crashing on the nearby beach, playing cards as a family.
My favourite Christmas, however, was in 2008. My grandparents had moved to Spain but had spent a great deal of their savings on the house so couldn’t fly home to England for the holidays. My mum and stepdad were just short of being able to afford a flight so we thought this was going to be the first Christmas we didn’t all spend together. Not wanting to be beaten though, we saved and sold a lot of our old stuff at a local car boot and managed to get enough for a flight, car hire and bit of spending money.
We didn’t tell my grandparents though; we thought we’d surprise them instead!
The morning of the flight, a few days before Christmas day, we were nervous about being found out, worried that we’d upset them by letting them think we weren’t coming and were panicking about being seen by them as we approached their house. I don’t remember the details but I remember there being some worry on the flight about the car hire not being confirmed or something so we didn’t even know if we had any transport once we landed (it turns out that we did have a car, phew).
My grandparents lived a good two hours away from the airport so we still had a long way to go before getting there once we’d landed. They lived in a villa up a mountain so we stopped in the local town at the bottom to stock up on food and drink. I mean, just us being there would have been good enough for them, I’m sure, but turning up anywhere empty handed is rude, y’know? The supermarket trip had to be stealthy in case my grandparents had decided to go shopping at the same time (strangely enough it turned out that they’d just got to the shop as we left!).
We got to the house and realised they were out. To get into their garden you had to go through a locked gate which we didn’t have a key for, so we had to somehow hide the car behind a wall and jump over the smaller gate around the back (typing this out I’m surprised we didn’t get arrested!). As they were out we made ourselves comfortable on their porch by the swimming pool until they returned.
The look of confusion etched on their faces when they returned home and saw us sitting there, and the sheer happiness they felt when they realised that it was us who were casually sitting in their garden, is permanently ingrained in my memory. We weren’t expected so there wasn’t much in the way of food or presents, and we didn’t come bearing gifts, but it really didn’t matter. Just us being all together, and being without all the pressure to have the ‘greatest day ever’ that you’re bombarded with at home, was all that we needed.
We managed to make a meal from what we had, and what the supermarket had left this close to the day. My mum had sneakily packed a box of crackers so we still had our paper crowns on. It was 32 degrees C that day- an anomaly even for Spain at that time of year, I’m sure- so we sat out on the front porch to eat. Later that week we met the neighbours, explored the local, traditional Spanish village and took a trip to a monastery across the mountain.
I know this sounds incredibly cheesy but I really believe I experienced the true meaning of Christmas that year.
A lot of people always ask how we could spend the holidays somewhere where it isn’t cold, or they say that they couldn’t do it as it wouldn’t feel like Christmas. But it does feel like Christmas abroad, it’s just a little different to what you know because you’re experiencing what Christmas means to people in another part of the world. The Spanish don’t do it like us but one thing that is the same as the UK is the festivities still make them extra happy. “Feliz Navidad” the cheery shop assistant would say on our way out of the supermarket. Spanish versions of classic songs played in the cafes that we sat in after a trip to the beach, and festive lights adorned the streets of the old towns whilst the sun shone down on them.
These Christmases abroad, for me, weren’t about materialistic things, or the cliche hot drinks and snow and movies (although these things are great too). They weren’t about doing what people expect us to do during this time of year.We couldn’t pack many presents because of baggage allowances and what we could take was limited as well due to item restrictions. We didn’t get snow or a dinner with all the trimmings, but that didn’t matter. They were about being together, living in the moment, experiencing new ways of doing things whilst incorporating our own traditions.
So, yes, to me being together on the beach in a foreign country does still feel like Christmas abroad- in fact, it feels more so than the cold, materialistic Christmas at home ever will.
Has anyone ever been abroad for the holidays? Would you do it again? Do you want to spend them abroad but haven’t done so yet? Let me know in the comments!
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