I didn’t think it would bother me that much. Yes, I’m what my nan would call a ‘home girl’ (turning up at their house every Sunday for dinner when they lived in London), but I’m also stubbornly independent. It’s just one year and I’m lucky to be midway through the trip of a lifetime right now, so spending Christmas in a hostel in Argentina would be ‘different’, sure, but not exactly tragic.
We arrived at the hostel on the evening of the 23rd, just in time to join the planning meeting for the Christmas dinner. As is the tradition in Argentina, this would be held on Christmas Eve, and our feast would be made up of dishes contributed by each of the 40 of us staying at the hostel. We were told that all the shops shut at 1pm on Christmas Eve so inevitably, the morning was spent squeezing our way round the supermarket along with every single other person from the hostel, and locals who were regretting not being more organised upon finding their local shop overrun by tourists staring at labels in the hope of working out what they meant (then trying to make a call on whether whatever-the-hell it was would work as a substitute for what they were actually looking for).
The resulting three course dinner was as delicious as it was eclectic, and our own contribution of pigs in blankets – beef sausages in jamón serrano, gaining them the nickname ‘cows in sheets’ by a fellow Brit – went down a storm. We ate, drank, laughed, and played that game where you keep ripping off part of a cereal box until the person who can get down the lowest wins.
But Christmas Day was weird. We went to Mass at the cathedral, which was an interesting cultural experience, but not as joyous as I was hoping for. If this had been part of my usual Christmas routine, I’m sure it would have been comforting, but I was only there for the singing and it was so bereft of any enthusiasm that it was all I could do not to stand up and say, “This time, with FEELING!” The sarcastic commentary in my head was sassily pointing out that we were supposed to be celebrating a birth, not a funeral. Back at the hostel, we made scrambled eggs with smoked trout (see previous point; this substitute was actually better than anticipated) which we accompanied with a glass of bucks fizz (fancy), and shared with a lovely British couple, the male half of which impressively – and I have to admit, unexpectedly – bossed the cereal box game.
Danielle and I exchanged presents which was lovely, I skyped my mum, but after that I was just bored. I hadn’t made any plans – obviously, it was Christmas Day – and I found myself wishing the day to be over. I watched this video on repeat, because I’m sentimental like that:
I started reflecting on what I’d missed. It suddenly felt like, without really starting, Christmas was already almost over. I realised how much I’d missed the build-up: carol singing with my wonderful choir in chilly train stations; having a comedy advent calender on my desk at work (cheers Poundland); putting up the tree with my mum to the sound of the same Christmas soundtrack that starts with East 17 Stay Another Day; singing along with all of the carol singing everywhere (descants descants descants); in-depth debates on the ranking of Christmas sandwiches; the Salvation Army band at Waterloo station; work parties where everyone drinks like it’s Armageddon; finding the perfect Christmas present on Oxford Street so it makes it all worth it when I’m hungry, tired, weighed down with bags and desperate for a wee; ‘Big Tree Night’ in Shepperton and bumping into people I went to school with; annual Christmas catch-ups; popping over to see friends round the corner from ‘home’ home; wrapping presents in front of a Christmas film and lining up bits of sellotape along the kitchen table which I’d still find days later; Christmas Eve laughing with old friends. I missed all of that.
But I also missed that feeling. That feeling that smells of home and ancient boxes of Christmas tree lights. That feeling that means seeing family and old friends that help run a constant thread of meaning though your life. That feeling that’s nostalgia and childhood excitement that’s forgotten you’re an adult, and anything-is-possible and the magic that connects you to people and makes you want to give and say yes when you might have said no because…it’s Christmas.
It gives you permission to say how you feel (not that I normally need that), but more than that, it makes you want to say how your feel (ditto previous point). I even had an out-of-the-blue ‘Merry Christmas’ message from the Casanova turned Asshole of my previous post (he obviously hasn’t found the blog…yet). But it displays the point: Christmas makes you think of people who’ve meant something to you and want to say, “Hey, you”. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t spoken to someone in years; Christmas is timeless and constant.
You feel like a kid again because with all its routine and ritual, Christmas is the one thing in your life that’s changed the least. It provides the reassuring constant that balances our fast-paced lives and rapidly-changing routines, homes, jobs, technology, partners (ahem). Perhaps that’s why I get such a thrill from decorating the tree with lights bought in the 1980s; Christmas represents stuff lasting.
“Because it’s Christmas” is a sprinkling of stardust. I’ve felt it a few times here, fleetingly, wrapped up in messages from friends I hadn’t spoken to in ages or in a Christmas song floating from a shop doorway. Or in funny scanned emails from my mum:
But mostly, I’ve experienced it vicariously through Facebook, which isn’t quite the same. Messages helped and were wonderful; on Christmas Day everyone seemed to wake up from a stupor a bit drunk at 11.30pm, so I had another flurry then. I went on a Boxing Day run partly to burn some calories, but mostly because I was very aware that I needed some endorphins to try and fill the void. When I spoke to my dad after the Boxing Day family gathering and he told me that they’d played Pass the Nut*, I nearly erupted into sobs. And speaking to my nan Boxing Day evening, through the frustratingly bad internet connection, was what finally brought a lump to my throat. I guess it’s a common case of only appreciating what I had when it wasn’t there. Classic. Apologies to end on such a cliché. Maybe as we move through life, we need reminding of the lessons we’ve already learnt. I’ll be making sure that for the last two months of my trip, I appreciate and embrace every moment. As for next Christmas…are you free on the 5th December? Yes? Fab. Mulled wine and mince pies at my house. I’m looking forward to it already.
*I don’t think this game exists outside of our family, but trust me – it’s a hoot.