Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road.
If you have ever spent Christmas away from home, you know how strange it can be to leave behind the family traditions, big meals and gift exchanges.
I spent Christmas last year in Australia, where instead of festivities in the dark and cold, it's the middle of summer.
Leading up to the holidays, I was on a road trip through the Northern Territory. We drove to Alice Springs and Uluru before heading to the Mornington Peninsula to meet friends over Christmas.
On Dec. 5, we arrived in Alice Springs. It was 41.2 C (which feels like taking a bath in your own sweat, in case you're wondering) and we went to the mall to buy supplies and escape the heat. There, I saw one of the first Christmas displays we'd seen: a sled with reindeer and a Christmas tree. But they weren't reindeer – they were kangaroos.
This should have been my first clue that I was going to have an unconventional Christmas.
A few weeks later, we drove to a little beach-side town called Dromana. We'd rented a flat with two other friends whom we'd met while picking blueberries in New South Wales. Our multicultural Christmas had Canadian, French, German and Swedish themes.
Christmas Day started with a trip to the beach. We hopped into our cars and navigated the crowded parking lots until we finally found space along the water. The sand was excruciatingly hot. We yelped and danced our way to a free spot on the beach.
The Australians had been clever enough to bring sun tents and cold drinks, which we eyed in envy. Stripping down to our bathing suits, we spread out our towels and settled in for the day. It was so hot that we entered the water every 20 minutes or so to avoid heat stroke.
Around lunchtime we wandered down the street to a chip shop and grabbed a bite to eat. The restaurant was packed. Apparently the fish-and-chip industry does well over the holidays. We ate our food with our cheeks still warm from the sun, sand in our hair, clothes thrown over damp bathing suits. I didn't hear one festive song.
In the afternoon, we played in the shallow, warm water, then dried off in the sun. We headed back to our apartment to prepare a mostly vegetarian Christmas potluck.
Planned days in advance, the menu included smoked salmon hors d'oeuvres (France), fried cheese on bread and gingerbread (Germany), nut loaf with gravy and scalloped potatoes (my contribution), and saffron buns (Sweden). And wine and chocolate, of course.
It never felt like Christmas. Even though my friend brought a tiny Christmas tree and we put presents underneath, it was hard to get into the holiday spirit while wearing shorts and a tank top and passing around moisturizer to soothe a likely sunburn.
Before then, I'd never realized how much the cold weather defines my Christmas experience. My Australian friends recounted their typical Christmas day: hanging out on the beach or by the pool, eating a cold seafood lunch, then having a nice, long nap. Many people take advantage of the nice weather to go camping and hiking over the holidays.
For me, Christmas can be no less than snow piled up to the windows, cheery lights, Christmas sweaters and a roaring fire. Not to mention being with my family. But I'm grateful I got a peek at other traditions, even if just to remind me how much I love my own.
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