Somewhere, in some dusty cupboard in one of those vinyl photo albums that families used to keep, is my favourite photo from any family Christmas. It’s from 1987, the year my parents moved from Guelph to a tiny old farmhouse outside the ghost town of Hybla, Ont. Two of my mom’s brothers and their families came to celebrate, and somehow six adults and seven kids and a couple of dogs filled the small house. In the photo, the seven kids are sitting on a carpeted staircase, all of us in outrageous Christmas pyjamas, lined up from the youngest – my brother, then three – to the oldest – my cousin, nine or 10 years old. The excitement on our faces is tactile.
My second favourite Christmas photo is from many years later and many thousands of kilometers away. In it, my then-partner is leaning into a mint green phone booth with a stack of calling cards clutched in her hand, shouting over the buzzing motorcycle traffic to wish her family back in Ottawa a Merry Christmas. It’s nighttime, but the light from the phone booth and the passing scooters illuminate her wild grin against this manic backdrop, Hanoi’s French Quarter. Nearby, a shrivelled Vietnamese grandmother is selling helium balloons beside the road, dressed in a Santa Claus suit that hangs loose and flaps in the breeze.
There’s a tension between these two moments that has come to define my relationship with the holidays: stability, warmth and predictable, comforting familial love on the one hand and adventure, excitement and a sense of palpable distance on the other. After university, by which time the family in that first photo had scattered geographically and emotionally, and as the kids grew up and had their own kids, the holidays became less about making a pilgrimage to all be together as a family and more – for me, certainly – about finding an interesting way to spend scarce vacation time.
The first time I skipped family Christmas, I felt a tremendous sense of guilt. I was in Ulsan, South Korea, visiting my partner and making a wild gamble. In my last year of university, I’d spent 25 per cent of my student loan on the plane ticket, and within two days of being in Korea knew I didn’t want to go back. I had the credits to graduate with a lesser degree and a dodgy offer to work in one of Korea’s ubiquitous English after-school academies for a lofty $2,000 a month. I stayed. A few days later, over MSN Messenger’s grainy video chat, I told my family, gathered around their Christmas tree as we opened presents together across 12 time zones. They said they were thrilled. I said I’d be there next year, and I was.
Gradually, though, I started being away more and more. I spent the next year in Hanoi, then one or two in Canada, and then left and haven’t been back. In that time, I’ve celebrated Christmas in London’s Heathrow Airport on a nine-hour layover – an impossible amount of time, especially since all public transportation to the city is suspended for Christmas and Boxing Day and all shops are closed anyway. I’ve had Christmas Day in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I sought not one but two turkey dinners, neither of which can truly be classified as turkey nor dinner. I’ve called Sichuan food in Dublin a Christmas feast, Chinese restaurants being the only ones that stay open. In Tokyo, I dug into a family bucket of KFC, a hilarious quirk of 1970s advertising in which KFC convinced the Japanese populace that it was a standard Christmas dinner in the United States. I’ve frozen my fingers and toes in Seoul walking to the Canadian-themed Rocky Mountain Bar in Itaewon for a festive poutine and pint of Rickard’s. And last year, I stayed home in my apartment in Hangzhou, China, in a futile protest against my Chinese employer’s insistence that I be at my desk on December 25. I drank Baileys in my coffee all day and my absence went largely unnoticed.
Each year, the feeling of guilt grew smaller. Instead of video calls with my family, all of whom now celebrate alone, we’d chat for a few minutes, or text, or say we’d talk soon. To borrow from Kurt Vonnegut: So it goes.
And so it should, I argue. The majority of Canadians travel domestically in December – 88 per cent in 2018, according to Statistics Canada. Those who go abroad travel to the U.S., Mexico and Cuba, and the numbers to other overseas destinations are so slight as to be insignificant.
There’s a huge opportunity being missed here. For those who celebrate Christmas, which of course is not all Canadians (and by Christmas here I mean the commercial holiday, as separate from religion as stuffing chocolate oranges into oversized socks can be), being somewhere new and strange is even more new and more strange at Christmas. It’s the best time to travel, especially in Asia, where the consumerism is ratcheted up to 11. Surely the purest face of globalization and consumerism is a 70-year-old, overweight German tourist sweating through his shirt while he totters on the arm of a bored-looking, very young looking escort through narrow Bangkok back alleys, both of them wearing Santa hats and breathing beery good tidings. New: check. Strange: check. Is this Christmas? Who knows!
So, instead of the slog back home to piles of snow and veiled criticism from your in-laws, venture farther. Book a trip to Tokyo, to Kuala Lumpur, to Bangkok. Revel in the bizarre adaptations of the traditional Christmas narrative while working on your tan, and trust that those around you will forgive you for missing this year. As Christmases lose meaning with age, as that childhood excitement – me on the stairs in 1987, bursting at the seams to discover something new under the tree – wanes, it can be replaced with purposefully setting out to discover something new in the farthest corners of the world.
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