Christmas is the happiest time of the year: time for family, celebration, love, and, most notably, absurd amounts of food. Throughout my childhood, I most looked forward to Christmas Eve. On December 24th, my extended family would gather at my grandma’s house to share in opłatek, feast on a traditional Polish meal full of pierogies, and participate in an extremely long gift exchange. My fondest Christmas memories involve my cousins and I anxiously waiting for Santa (my great uncle dressed in a toilet paper beard) to come trudging down the stairs, inviting us to disclose our most intimate holiday wishes. A lot has happened since those innocent days, but the Christmas Eve will always hold a special place in my heart, even if I have to re-experience it via Skype chats.
This marks the second year that I’m spending the holidays away from my family; however, it’s the first time that I’ve been truly alone. Last year, after several months of hitchhiking, I spent Christmas in England. Although I strayed away from my traditional Polish Christmas, I had a fantastic and blessed time, surrounded by those I’d definitely consider my family and friends. On Christmas Eve 2012, I was in a tiny village in Norfolk, drinking mulled wine for the first time and inquiring as to what the heck a trifle was. As chance would have it, an American woman who was married to a Brit came to the party for a few minutes, and I spoke to her briefly about how badly I had been missing pumpkin pie over the holiday season. The next day, a homemade pumpkin pie was delivered to my boyfriend’s mother’s house: this is what Christmas is all about. Even if you can’t have your family, experiencing the generosity and comradery of a simple gesture is enough to raise anyone’s spirits. I loved my UK Christmas experience, especially wearing a silly hat-something that we don’t do in the States- and going golfing at the local castle on Christmas morning.
A year later, I’m feeling a bit of animosity towards Christmas. I may have been away from family before, but this is the first time that I’ve been completely on my own during the holidays. Yule tide cheer surely isn’t in abundance in Korea, and I wasn’t feeling very “Christmasy” throughout December. On Christmas Eve, I worked a shift longer than my normal one, serving iced tea at our school Christmas party for six hours. It wasn’t the most festive of experiences, and I found myself feeling pretty down afterwards. My bosses generously took the teaching team out for a large Christmas feast, with Asian cuisine, of course, and it was a little difficult to get into the festivities as a vegetarian. Korea is a carnivorous country, and I found myself lusting for my family’s hearty, home-cooked Polish starches and alcohol. Where were my pierogies? Where was my grandpa’s famous punch bowl full of whiskey sour? Then I realized that this is all part of the experience. I chose this-no one else. Tough times come with the territory, especially during the holiday season. Was I going to sit around and mope, or have a fabulous (albeit eccentric) Christmas anyway?
Thankfully, I’ve met some pretty stellar folks since moving to Korea. On Christmas Day, six of us cooked Western dishes, drank eggnog together, did a pretty awesome White Elephant gift exchange, and shot-off fireworks. Sure, it wasn’t the same, but the lack of sameness is what makes life interesting- it was the first time that I fired a Roman Candle into the sky! I look forward to the next time that I get to spend the holidays with my family, and I know that I’ll appreciate it far more because of my experiences away. One thing is for sure: even though the last two Christmases were strange by normal standards, I’ll never forget them. I owe that to the people who made them special, and the things I learned along the way. Merry Christmas, ya’ll.