This time of the year I often look back to the many vastly different environments in which we have celebrated the festive season over the years.
I have many warm and wonderful memories of the Christmases of my childhood in Scandinavia. We always went to the forest to cut the tree ourselves, often in knee-deep snow. This was usually done in the morning of Christmas Eve or earliest the day before. The tree was then decorated during the afternoon and the live candles were lit in the evening – under strict supervision. The flickering lights were beautiful as we sat down for the festive meal, which in the Scandinavian countries is enjoyed on Christmas Eve with extended family, whenever possible.
After the dinner we would receive Santa’s modest presents. Often there was something self-made, such as a small play table and two chairs for me and my sister, a knitted doll or a pair of warm socks or gloves. The gifts were not fancy but lovingly made. Coloring books and drawing materials were also among my favorites, I remember.
I celebrated the holidays at home until I went away to college. During the college years I used to look for work abroad during the Christmas break together with some of my friends. Maybe an early sign of my quest to learn about other countries and cultures, and definitely good for my wallet and language skills. This of course meant that I no longer spent the holidays at home as we were working throughout the period. Those Christmases were somewhat lonely and very simple, illustrated by one of my “trees” from that time, a pine branch in a champagne bottle.
Then I got married and we started a family. Our son’s birth brought a new dimension to the holiday celebrations. After a few years celebrating at home my career took us to many different countries – that was a beginning of a long stretch of years celebrating the holidays in many different environments and circumstances.
I always remember our first Christmas in Africa. We celebrated it in Zambia. It was very strange not to have snow or at least cold weather when the holidays approached. It didn’t really feel like Christmas!
We could not get hold of a Christmas tree, but had a tiny artificial tree with a few decorations that we had brought with us. We found a German farm and managed to get an excellent smoked ham for Christmas dinner. We enjoyed that dinner with some traditional Scandinavian dishes on our beautiful covered terrace, decorated by nature for the holidays with huge red lilies. Finally the holiday mood arrived!
In Zambia, our son could also enjoy Santa, who came to say hi all the way from Scandinavia wearing a T-shirt, long johns and sunglasses. That year we also had family visiting us from home for the holidays and we celebrated a memorable New Year at Victoria Falls in the very south of the country.
My next special memory is from a Christmas we celebrated in Ethiopia. That was the first time in our years in Africa we tried to get a live Christmas tree. We found a small cypress that I thought looked very nice.
It was tall, but as it happened, the branches were so weak that we had to be very creative to hang our heavy lights and the few ornaments we had brought from home. After hours of strengthening the branches we had our tree all lit up! This was my most memorable tree decorating ever. Still smiling.
In Ethiopia we also organized a traditional Scandinavian Lucia ceremony with our kids singing carols and carrying live candles. Lucia is a prelude to Christmas, always celebrated on December 13th.
My most memorable hotel Christmas, and there are a few, was in the tiny nation of Djibouti. The only Christmas decoration we had in our hotel room was a small light chain around a picture frame. But it didn’t really matter as we spent the days on a small uninhabited island in the red sea. Swimming in the turquoise waters and eating picnic foods prepared for us every morning by the hotel chef. That was a different, but also a very beautiful holiday. No stress, no cooking, no gifts, just peaceful surroundings and lots of relaxation with family and a few friends.
The most memorable holiday season safari was in Uganda in the early 1990s. My sister and her husband were visiting us from Sweden. We embarked on a long safari on Boxing Day and visited three different national parks over a period of about a week, from Bwindi forests in the north to Queen Elizabeth National Park where we celebrated the New Year and finally to Mburo National Park before returning to our home in Kampala.
Another memorable holiday was just before we came to the US. I had been offered a job in Botswana and our family was invited to spend the holidays in Gaborone. That Christmas we stayed in a nice guest house in a completely new city. We hung up some colorful lights and I found most of the ingredients for our traditional Christmas dishes (another post to follow). In walking around in the city we spotted a Christmas tree decorated with empty soda and beer cans! We also stumbled on a Christmas display with a snowman and all in the 90/35 degree heat! He looked a bit tired…
Then, in 1994, we settled in the US and have usually celebrated the holidays at home. The most memorable celebration was a few years ago when our son got married just before Christmas and we had a lot of family from Scandinavia and new in-laws joining us for the holidays. I prepared all our traditional Christmas dishes and we ate in shifts of 12! That was a memorable holiday with so much of the family gathered in our house. That year we decorated a huge Christmas tree in Scandinavian style in our dining room.
After moving to the beach two years ago, we are now fully accustomed to the warm weather, the “green Christmas” and the holiday decorated palm trees swaying in the wind. We have given up the live tree in favor of a nice artificial one…but I still prepare the traditional foods from my childhood to bring in the holiday mood.
Nowadays, I try to leave the stress of shopping and gifting behind and spend more time relaxing and reflecting on the spirit of the holidays. I hope you will be able to celebrate the season with family and friends in the way your heart calls for. And get some quiet time for reflection. Peace.