Creating your own Christmas traditions
This is Part 4 in our Celebrating Christmas series, a peek into some of the activities our family undertakes to make Christmas a special time, even when we’re celebrating alone and there’s no snow in sight. In previous weeks we have shared our Advent countdown ideas in Part 1, Christmas pudding recipe in Part 2 and Christmas crafts to make with friends in Part 3.
As we live thousands of kilometres from my extended family and on a different continent to Joël’s, spending Christmas by ourselves is something we’ve grown accustomed to. Growing up, we only spent Christmas with our extended family every couple of years, yet Christmas Day was still a day of celebration and tradition. This will be the fourteenth Christmas Joël and I have celebrated together, most of which have been spent at home without our extended family (we also spent one Christmas in Peru where we ate roast guinea pig for lunch). I know many families are spending Christmas at home for the first time this year, due to travel restrictions or local lockdowns, so I thought I would share some of the things we do to make Christmas special, albeit on a smaller scale.
When we first had our own apartment together in Taiwan, we usually had to work on Christmas Day (it wasn’t a public holiday) and would celebrate in the evening or on the weekend. We also had to do some substitution with store-bought roast chicken (we didn’t have an oven), and mixed fruit with goji berries for the Christmas pudding. Nevertheless, we invited friends over for a meal with Christmas music, candles and a generally festive atmosphere. Living in Northern Australia, we at least get the day off, but still need to do a bit of substitution.
Unlike the typical Southern Hemisphere ‘summer’ Christmas or Northern Hemisphere ‘winter’ Christmas, in Northern Australia we get a bit of each with our ‘wet season’ Christmas (I’ve just had to pause writing to race around the house and shut the windows as a storm arrived rather suddenly). Dark rainy days call for candles, baking, and Christmas movie marathons, then the rain stops and we all go for a swim in the pool. Our supermarkets are stocked with cherries and other stone fruit, and we pick up some festive rambutan (and pineapple, mango and guava) from the weekend market. We’re not going to be able to make snowmen or to go down for a swim at the beach on Christmas afternoon (it’s jellyfish season, in addition to the usual crocodiles), and we have made peace with our plastic Christmas tree a long time ago.
I have heard a lot of people say, “It’s just not Christmas,” and choose not to celebrate, although even these families often have their own ‘non-Christmassy’ traditions that they repeat each year on Christmas Day (be they movie marathons, fishing trips, or days spent playing games with friends). For those that do want to take part, I find there are actually plenty of ways we can meld traditions to create a Christmas that works for us. In some respects, this could reflect the phenomenon of the diaspora holding on to traditions long after the original culture has moved on, as we resolutely eat our roast meal at lunchtime (despite the heat), complete with turkey and pudding, but I feel it’s more a drive to connect through things that have brought us enjoyment in the past and we wish to continue and share with others, whilst still feeling able to discard those traditions that don’t work for us.
Spending Christmas with only your immediate family does mean it is now up to you to make it all happen, so some traditions may need to be simplified or put on hold, especially if you have small children. Whilst I love the idea of making gingerbread houses as table decorations, having lots of hot side dishes for Christmas lunch, and a seafood feast on Christmas Eve, it’s just not going to happen. Instead, we have started the new tradition of ordering in a seafood pizza while we watch movies on Christmas Eve (after spending the day at a local waterpark), having only whatever vegetables can fit into the barbecue alongside the meat for lunch, and skipping the gingerbread house until our children are older. We have (store bought) pannetone with a pot of coffee for Christmas breakfast as it feels festive and doesn’t require much preparation, supplemented by the cherries and chocolate coins from our stockings (Santa comes for adults as well as children in our families). Sure, we are capable of making our own pizza and pannetone (I have relatives who will point that out to me without fail, dare I mention I purchased something premade) but, when there are so many other things happening on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we also need some time to relax and enjoy ourselves.
There is always something more that you could be doing, but I feel there needs to be a cost/benefit analysis done when deciding which tasks are worth it. How much enjoyment does this task bring you and your family and how essential is it to your ‘Christmas’? What is the cost (time/money/missed special moments) of making it happen? I enjoy making the pudding (and it can be done well in advance), so we keep that tradition, but I have no sentimental attachment to cauliflower cheese, brussel sprouts or baked tomato and onion so we give them a miss (okra cooked in the barbecue or a quick salad is a fine substitute, in my opinion). We have tried using packet gravy but are yet to find one we like, so I do put in the effort to make it myself, and I also make egg custard as I don’t actually find it any more time-consuming than making custard from custard powder (noting that these are things I cook on a semi-regular basis, if I had to seek out and attempt an unfamiliar recipe I might not consider them worth the effort). The same thought process can be applied to cleaning and decorating the house, planning Advent activities, exchanging cards, taking up Christmas baking or craft projects, attending Christmas events, or anything else you feel you ‘should’ or ‘could’ be doing at Christmas.
If you’re really reluctant to give something up but are not sure you have the energy for it, you can always put it on hold for a year or two and bring it back if you do feel you miss it (I enjoy going to the big Carols by Candlelight concerts but just don’t feel it’s worth it until our children are older, so we go to a smaller, local concert instead). We have also shifted some ‘Christmas’ activities and chores to New Year, when we have more time for them. It makes more sense to try and ‘spring clean’ the house after Christmas, when Joël has time off work, than for me to try and do it all myself in the lead up to Christmas. We also find we can enjoy our fresh seafood more on New Year’s Eve when we’re not rushing around trying to do hundreds of things at once. I’m sure, as our children grow, our family’s preferences and capacity to take part in different traditions will continue to change, it’s really a process of identifying what you want to keep and what you’re ready to let go of, and identifying any new traditions you would like to embrace.
As our family celebrates in isolation, we continue to exchange gifts and schedule video calls with our family around the globe. I know some families forgo gifts when they are not meeting in person (especially those with large extended families), but we enjoy picking out a small gift that we know (or, at least, hope) each family member will appreciate. Especially for young children, picking out gifts for their cousins, making wrapping paper and cards and then going to the post office to send them off provides a tangible connection to their extended family (although we do sometimes buy presents online if we’re short on time or it’s significantly cheaper that way, especially for family overseas). We have tried video-calling whilst unwrapping presents on Christmas morning, but it was too distracting for our children and ourselves (and whoever we were speaking to would invariably end up staring at the ceiling without anyone to talk to), so we now either call first thing in the morning (before we open presents, although we will have opened our stockings) or later in the day (or we might even call on Christmas Eve or Boxing Day, if we know people are going out or we’re in incompatible time zones).
I think the key point I’m trying to make is, there is no right or wrong way to do Christmas. Also, it doesn’t have to be an ‘all or nothing affair’. If you enjoy the roast lunch and the bon bons and candles and Christmas music, simplify the menu and set the table with a few festive decorations so it still feels special but the workload isn’t overwhelming. If you’re not fussed about lunch, but like the board games and desserts, or walking the dog around the block wearing Christmas hats, a sunset picnic at the beach, or having a special breakfast in matching pyjamas, keep those parts and let go of the rest (order pizza if you like or go for a walk in the rain). Even if your extended family is very set in their Christmas traditions, and you enjoy taking part when you all get together, you don’t need to replicate the same celebration if you don’t think it will work on a smaller scale (or you don’t have the time or energy to do it all yourself). No two families will spend Christmas the exact same way, even if they usually celebrate together, as everyone is drawing on their own unique meld of traditions and memories of past Christmases (both good and bad).
I recognise that having Christmas alone by choice is somewhat different to being separated due to a global pandemic, especially when it is your family’s first time celebrating alone. You may not want to have create new traditions and rethink how you ‘do Christmas’ and that’s fine too, you have a right to grieve the big family Christmas you had hoped for. Whilst we had considered spending Christmas with my family this year, we decided a couple of months ago that it wasn’t worth it, given the possibility of forced interstate quarantine being implemented without notice. We never had any concrete plans for Christmas, so we don’t feel we’re really missing out by spending Christmas at home again this year, which is a different position to many others around the globe (or even those around Australia who had been planning on celebrating with family in New South Wales).
Whatever you get up to, I hope you find a moment (or more) to relax over the festive period, I will be taking a break from the blog until the new year, although I may post the occasional update to Facebook and Instagram before then (we've been doing a lot of gardening so I might share some photos).
Happy Christmas, thanks for following along with us in 2020!