Celebrating holidays abroad can be one hell of a jolly time, and it can also be a solitary affair where you wrestle with the joy of travel and the ache for nostalgic tradition. This Christmas, for me, was just that.
This year I celebrated Christmas in Melbourne Australia. Unlike the past few Christmas’s that have come and gone while traveling, this one was more or less forgettable. You can’t really call Christmas this year as “celebrated” — I did nothing related to the holiday; no opening presents or feasting with family or drinking egg nog. I didn’t decorate any halls, or sing any carols, or sip wine by a fire. I didn’t even watch a Christmas movie.
Instead, I was alone.
I spent the day wandering up and down streets of Melbourne. I wandered the entire day aimlessly, accompanied by the remnants of a hangover, for about 5 hours. Up and down alleyways and laneways. Thousands of ants scurried about looking for last minute gifts in a maze of streets. Couples holding hands and enjoying the festive decorations of the city. Starbucks packed out of the door with those desperate caffeine addicts. I went twice. Maybe for coffee, or maybe just to say something to someone that day. Someone that wouldn’t carry the conversation further. Someone that wouldn’t ask questions. Someone who wouldn’t talk about family.
All of Christmas day I walked. I had a long think. A much needed think. And I was alone on Christmas day by choice.
Why would I want to spend Christmas alone, especially while abroad?
It’s not like I didn’t have my options to choose from. Fellow co-workers from the restaurant had invited me to an orphans Christmas picnic on the beach, and there were also a few friends that I could have easily reached out to and joined in on the festivities. It’s just that I didn’t want to. Not like their company isn’t great, because it is, and it’s not like I wouldn’t have had a fun time. In the past, whether it be Christmas in New Zealand or Thailand or Haiti — I spent it with friends as well, old or new. Though it didn’t feel much like Christmas in those places, being with friends helped dilute the inevitable sorrows of nostalgic flashbacks. This year it all came back.
Christmas as it turns out has been a tainted holiday for a very long time. Just like that graffiti above that I found on Christmas Day in Melbourne.
And that is the reason why I had to spend it alone this year.
My ghost of Christmas Past
Growing up, Christmas in the Brown household was the only time when our family was just like everyone else’s. I could finally lose that year’s thrift store finds I wore to school, usually the same clothing a couple of days in a row that sported holes and grass-stains for the style. A fair chance at being a cool kid for a few weeks. A few weeks of not being made fun of for my shabbiness. My brother and I were getting shiny things and new things and fun things just like all of the other kids. Though my brother was arguably better at dealing with the other 364 days of the year because he wasn’t the runt that I was. No one picked on him.
And instead of a tension in the family that was either always threatening to snap or stretched until it did, it was a colorful time of momentary happiness heralded by the smiles of anticipation followed by satisfaction. The only red and blue lights that day and night would come from the heart-beat of the Christmas lights around our triumphant tree. My brother was there, not at some friends house as he usually was. My mother was there, not coming home late at night from some unknown place. My father was there, not belligerent on Milwaukee’s Best and foaming at the mouth. We were a family.
Stockings were retrieved from the attic — retired each year to the darkness until they can be brought back into an airier and lighter time in the house. Christmas time. The only time they could exist, because they held pure joy…and candy. On Christmas day there was no fear about drunken arguments or fights. The folding attic stairs would moan as they were pulled down, like a great old man stretching in a brief and youthful glory. Those stockings, their faded crimson and pine colored velvet surface sported patchwork islands of gold sparkles that would flash along the decade-old browned glue, once spelling out our glorious shimmering names in cursive.
They were from some past time when my brother and I were both much younger, maybe conceived at a school holiday event or made at youth group at our church. Either way, there was a life to them that had shared moments with us, and seeing them each year brought me back to a time when I wasn’t conscious of things beyond a naive baby’s beautiful mind. Just pure happiness. When I didn’t remember the nightly grip of anxiety wondering if my father to explode. The stockings smelled like the attic always, that dark place above the house that held happy memories and holidays. Like my mind.
The stockings were hung near the cardboard chimney that was set up in the split living room, just beyond the shelves adorned with tiny clay elves and cheap yellowed plastic candles. Santa, I was told, would come down that water-stained cardboard chimney, but only if I was a good boy. Sometimes I’d sit there and gaze at the makeshift chimney wondering if my parents got into a fight, would he skip our house? What if they weren’t good this year? Would I not get presents this year? Would I have to go to school and watch all of the other kids flaunt their new stuff?
I’d sit there, on that mangy blue carpet that smelled of damp cat, marveling at the prospects of presents. Hoping I’d see a reindeer or Santa himself. Even though I knew I wouldn’t. After the age of 5, I had the gist that Santa wasn’t real, but I’ve always been the imaginative type. It was my escape from the reality of our house since my earliest memory. I’d sit all day imagining magical moments outside that yellow asbestos-shingled shell. The shards of our family in that broken home were pieced together for one day.
Everything felt whole, and I felt whole.
Leading up to Christmas was the best part. Either my brother and I or just myself would accompany Pops up the road to Hawkins. That family-run produce stand housed in a half-collapsed wood shack which always smelled simultaneously of fresh fruit and rotting fruit. A nostalgic landmark of better times. If it was cold enough, I’d jump and slide across the frozen puddles created from the potholes in the gravel driveway. My father was always ahead of me, eager to join the other silhouettes around that same rusty barrel that was there every winter, glowing with orange embers and warming the swaying souls around it.
I’d run up to them rubbing my hands close to the red-hot steel and my father would belch loud into night, head tilted back like a howling beast, his hot stale breath floating into the cold crisp air. He would have finished a beer and crushed the can and thrown it into the barrel before I reached him. As the sparks of his first victory leapt out of the barrel to dance with the stars, he’d growl at me to “Go pick a tree already” and I’d run off into the forest. The smell of pine is the best smell in the world. The deep green would flash by as I’d run and explore the labyrinth of Christmas trees perched on wood pallets in the muddy lot, inspecting each one for it’s worth and all the while playing hero in some wintery fairytale. The close roar of laughter would be the creatures in the night. After some time, I’d try to pull my father away from the warmth of the barrel and the call of beer, and he’d always say, “One more and we’ll go.”
One or two more would be guzzled and sent to the flames, and only then he’d toss a tree into the bed of our grey rust-spotted Ford. I would wince as the tree landed with a thud, like I could feel its pain. I’d haul myself into the truck onto the seats that reeked of sweat and gasoline, my feet shuffling around in old receipts or trash, and buckle up. The truck would roar to life, gears grinding in the old beast, and we’d thump over the small ice-patches and into the street. His beard, beaded with small orbs of beer, would reflect the street lights like a Christmas tree. He, like the truck, always smelled of gasoline and stale beer too. We only managed to go off the road one of those nights when the beer and the black ice proved to be a bad combination. Not a bad record.
“Can we decorate it tonight?” I’d beam, and he’d say, “Not with me. And I don’t know where your mom is right now.”
But I knew she’d be home sometime. I knew she wouldn’t miss decorating the tree with me. The decoration was our ritual.
I’ve decorated trees with a few families now, or watched them decorate it, but it wasn’t the same as our ritual. Mom would be home one night, and she’d shriek out to me, “Bear! It’s time to decorate the tree!” and dammit I was the most excited kid on the planet. Tinsel would be strewn everywhere as we tore into boxes that held the happiness from the past Christmas trapped within. I’d find the old scratched gold and red and green ornaments and watch my face warp in them.
Hanging the ornaments was meticulous, they must be distributed evenly. My brother would join in on occasion, but usually he’d get bored and either sit back and watch or head out to a friend’s house. My father would probably be at China Gourmet up the road, the local dive for most of Kensington’s famed drinkers. The tree would come to life with ornaments that we as children had made, with the warmth of the lights, with silver strands thrown about.
As Christmas approached, I would lay down every night on the beaten teal couch that faced the tree, and I’d watch the Christmas lights twinkle with their warm colors until they became kaleidoscopic blurs and I succumbed to sleep. Somehow in the mornings I’d wake up tucked into my bed, and I’d repeat it again the next night. It was magic. That warmth, the glow of the Christmas lights, that was my favorite sight. Somehow all of the worries in the world, even the daily worries that my childhood self had somehow acquired, would melt away. I could lay there all night every night as the house slept and the wind howled and the tree comforted me.
Christmas day we’d tear into presents like wild animals. My brother and I always got caught trying to sneak into the living room by trying to pick the lock on the door with our tooth brushes, but once Pops was awake we’d be released to maul the wrapping paper. The Santa and reindeer patterned tatters would fly into the air, and I’d gasp at the new shirts and pants and socks. I’d pull out a new Lego set and immediately began to pour them onto the ground, only to be halted by the, “We’re going to your aunt and uncles soon.” Though we’d always go to one of their houses for Thanksgiving, I wouldn’t be dressed in that year’s scuffed up clothes but new clothes. There was dinner and feasting and laughs. Usually, still feeling like I didn’t quite fit in, I’d be content to play outside running about waving stick swords or looking for their 3-legged cat. Everything was whole.
Then, of course, Christmas would pass. Life would return back to normal, if that was normal life. I thought it was for everyone. My brother most nights would be out somewhere in the neighborhood. I’d be at home building Legos. Pops would be either out with mom, or drinking in his chair that conformed to his body, with a few beers on standby in the holders. Either scenario, when one or both would return, the screaming and yelling would start. Then the slamming and pounding. Then the shrieks of pain and terror. And finally the cry of the sirens. I’d be standing there as the police once again showed up, not with the tree lights dancing in my eyes but the blurred police lights in my tears. The magic was gone, 364 days to go.
Christmas began to lose that magic after my mother took her life.
There had been plenty of Christmas’s during the frequent separations of my parents that I spent it in different places. I’d celebrate Christmas with my father and brother at home, and then go off to celebrate Christmas with my mom, usually with ridicule from my father and the absence of my brother. Be it at some random place she was staying, or with her side of the family, I’d still go with her. Pops would make me feel ashamed for going to see her that day, always blurting out something like, “You’d rather spend the whole day with your druggy mom huh?“. My brother not coming with me either would make me feel as though I was doing something wrong. Sometimes dad wouldn’t tell me that she called until I made a fuss about seeing her. I had to, she’s my mom, and we had our ritual. She’d be happy on some Christmas days, and weeping others. But we were together.
Ever since her death, Christmas has haunted me.
The first Christmas that she was truly gone, I slept by the Christmas tree like I did as a child. I was early teens by then, but I still had that pit of desire for Christmas to be like when I was younger. When we were a whole family. That night, while sleeping, I was startled awake by a sound and a presence in the room. I heard the distinct sound of my mother’s favorite tan heels that she’d wear to important places like church click-clack in the room, and when I jumped up, they trailed off down the dark hallway toward her old room. She was there, I could feel her and smell her and hear her. I wept, for it was this immense comfort that washed over me but also a deep sorrow so painful I could feel it in my chest. Hot tears blurred the Christmas lights that night, and I never told my father or brother about it.
My Father’s death was when Christmas lost all of its magic.
After my father passed in summer 2007, almost nothing had magic anymore. Or joy. Especially Christmas. I would celebrate Christmas with my brother at my uncle’s or aunts, but I would make excuses not to attend Christmas with his wife’s parents. I’d spend some Christmas’s with families that had been there for me as a child and had seen everything unfold. The ones that always took me in like I was their own boy, without question, or places I’d spend long breaks from school at just to escape. But by that point in my life, I despised Christmas. I hated Christmas. It made me feel angry and lonely and confused and jealous. These families were my own by everything except blood, but as they celebrated it together and had their own rituals and stockings and stories, I felt a void.
Being surrounded by Christmas, or holiday cheer, or people who were happy to be together — it hurt my whole being.
Every one of those families has taken me in and made me their own, and treated me as their own, and even got me presents and stockings with my name on it. As I would sit there on Christmas with my various families; be it my uncle’s or aunt’s or the others that have become my own, all I could do was concentrate on holding back the storm of emotions inside me. I’d sit there and want to scream and imagine taking every ornament and shattering them. I’d remember holidays with mom and dad and my brother, those damn nostalgic memories. The feelings that I hated experiencing forcing their way back into my mind. I would watch everyone from a distance on Christmas and I know they could feel my absence of emotion. But it was really myself trying to hold back all of the emotions. I always felt like I would vomit. I’d be trying to hold myself back from crying.
I haven’t had a proper cry in about 8 years.
Because last time I cried was the Christmas after my mother’s death, as well as at the funeral of my father. Since, I’ve felt like if I were to cry, the sky would shatter in a hail of screaming porcelain and the world would end. Because it had on both of those days. And Christmas since always ignited those memories.
My Christmas’s Abroad
Though Christmas and holidays abroad have been difficult times for me, they’ve also been a slow build to bringing back some semblance of joy during holidays. Gradually, I’ve been coming to grips with those issues, and each destination has proven a lesson. This year in Melbourne was the biggest lesson of them all. But first I have to go back to the other places that I’ve been in for Christmas over the past 4 years.
<< New Zealand >>
Christmas in New Zealand was the first Christmas I celebrated abroad. It was a crazy time for me, one where I was discovering the world and myself and life unhindered. It also allowed me to, for the first time, let go of most of the bad mojo I felt toward the holiday. I was in Raglan, and spending it with other backpackers that were on a bus tour across the north island. All day we relaxed on the black sand beach, swam in the crystal blue water, and took cliché group jumping pictures.
That night, we cracked Tui beers and made a pasta feast together while watching The Lord Of The Rings. Later, we explored the surrounding hillside and hunted for glow worms. I tried and failed to flirt with a girl that night, but other than that, I didn’t feel anything negative. Before sleep, I stared off toward the silvery ocean in the twilight and felt a pang of longing, but that was all.
<< Thailand >>
The next Christmas I celebrated abroad was Thailand, which was a bit more of an emotional experience. On Christmas Eve I was in a bungalow on the calm side of Koh Phi Phi where I had a conversation about my parents with a girl I met. She asked me about the topic randomly, and after swallowing the knot in my throat, I told her everything about my parents deaths. As I was finishing telling her about my father’s passing, the wind began to howl in an otherwise dead quiet night, and the lights in my bungalow suddenly shut off. the power was completely out. Moments later they came back on, but I could feel my father’s presence as the wind died again and all went calm. It could be just Thailand power grids, but I felt him. I nearly cried, but to avoid catastrophe I didn’t.
Christmas Day I met up with Hannah and Adam, some fellow travel bloggers, and we went down to the beach area and drank and watched the fire shows. It hit me a little harder there, as everyone was in full drunken Christmas mode and Hannah and Adam were calling their parents to talk on Christmas. I got way too wasted, and I slept on the street that night.
<< Haiti >>
My last Christmas abroad I was in Haiti for it with my good friend Viky and his girlfriend. We found ourselves in a random small town near Camp Perrin and stopped for the night in a hotel. That Christmas Eve night, we snacked on plantains and drank bottles of Haitian rum. He had her, and she had him, and I had the rum bottle, but I didn’t feel any sadness. Just a stillness in the heavy and hot air. A stillness in myself.
No hatred or remorse. Just nothing.
Christmas day we explored Voodoo caves, and upon finding out that our young guide’s brother was in the hospital and would not be able to save him because they couldn’t get blood, we decided to help. Only Viky and I had thick enough blood to donate after being dehydrated from hiking, so their brother was able to get the type he needed in exchange. As a thank you, their family had us stay with them the night and in the morning brought us in for a prayer. “A Christmas miracle” they said in Creole.
Holding hands in that shack as the women sang songs in Creole and cried for joy for their son, something awoke in me. I felt something. Holding the rough hands of that family beneath the tin roof, joined with my friends in that journey, I was suddenly okay with being a part of other people’s lives and other people’s Christmas. I nearly cried again, because that was one of the most intense experiences I had ever been a part of. But I didn’t.
<< Australia >>
This year, as I noted in the beginning, I’m in Melbourne for the holidays. Holidays in a city like Melbourne, where I’m working in hospitality while everyone dines with family and shops and celebrates together, was a bit tougher to handle. I worked long hours for office parties and family feasts. I waited tables for people on Christmas Eve, and the whole day I felt a well of anger inside. I didn’t like it. I’ve gotten past my anger over the holiday, and I didn’t hate it anymore. At least that’s what I thought. But here I was serving tables and refusing to wish people a Merry Christmas. I was a Grinch. All I wanted to do was drink, and couldn’t wait until I was off to go out with the work mates.
Wasted is putting it lightly.
A group of us went out Christmas Eve and I was drinking like I was in a contest and we were running out of time. Scotch after scotch after scotch. I danced the night away and laughed with friends and all of that felt falsely great, but I was doing it not because I was enjoying their company on a holiday when most of us were away from our family, but to cover up how I felt. It’s not that I’m been beating myself up over having a rager party night and let loose, but it was why I did it. Everyone on surface level was in the same situation, with all of us creating an orphan Christmas and being there for each other.
But In my mind, I was just looking to drink and get wasted and dance and find someone to hook up with, just because I felt immensely lonely and had to mask it. Something had brought forth those negative thoughts and feelings about Christmas once again, and I was trying to drown them any way possible. I didn’t want the night to end, so I kept drinking and trying to convince everyone to stay out later. But the night did end in a seedy dive bar dancing to electronica amongst ghosts of people flailing about in a drug induced zombification. At some point it hit me. I set my drink down and told the last of the group I was heading out.
I didn’t want Christmas to come the next day, but I was done with the artificial happiness of the night that wasn’t making it any better.
Facing My Fear Of Christmas
Melbourne was like Santa and his reindeer barfed up red and green and sparkles all over the city. Every corner you went around there was some sort of Christmas display. All month it made me sick. Maybe because those other places I celebrated the past few years wasn’t so in your face, but suddenly I despised Christmas again. And I hated feeling that way, I just couldn’t help it. And after Christmas Eve when I woke up the next morning stuck to my bed in the summer heat, seeping whiskey scented sweat, my head jackhammering with a headache, I felt a sinking feeling of depression. It seemed as though I hadn’t actually conquered my issues with Christmas, only ignored or masked them. As message after message popped up from co-workers asking if I was coming to their orphan picnics or others of people making plans, I didn’t want to be around that. Not around Christmas. I didn’t want to have to invent a story about my family if the topic was brought up, because I didn’t want to talk about the truth.
Instead, I spent most of Christmas Day in bed.
That was partially due to my hangover, but it was also me hiding from the inevitable emotions of the day. Around 3pm my stomach began to painfully ache with hunger. I thought about just ordering delivery so I didn’t have to leave, but I was sinking deeper into my bed every ticking minute and I’d soon be consumed by this quicksand-like depression. Laying there was making things worse. So I peeled myself off the bed and went down into Melbourne CBD in search for some food and distraction.
It was Chinatown where I found solace.
The lack of Christmas vibe could have been what attracted me, but maybe I was drawn to it by nostalgia. During holidays growing up when my father didn’t want to cook, we’d always end up ordering Chinese food. Always up at the China Gourmet restaurant mentioned before for their annual Christmas party. Something about being in Chinatown felt familiar. I spent about an hour walking the streets and alleys of Chinatown looking for a place to eat. Most places were open, but I just wandered even with the groans of my stomach.
Eventually I found a suitable hole in the wall place, one that had barely any English on anything and one with nobody that wasn’t Asian. Except me. I sat down and ordered a water, hot and sour soup, and fried noodles. I sat watching the other diners talking and slurping down their food and all the while reflected on that previous night, and the month.
What went wrong? Why was I suddenly filled with despair?
When the food came I ate like I was grazing, slowly taking methodical bite after the next, taking my time to enjoy it, and observing the world. In my head I was tracing through days and weeks and months of events, of past and present situations. Trying to decipher why I was being so bitter and why I was feeling the need to supplement my normal calm spirit with reckless abandon. I wasn’t too reckless and it was only one night out right? That’s not what was eating me alive, it was the reason for why I felt the need to drink it all away that troubled me. With the greasy Chinese meal finished and the hangover subsiding, I left Chinatown behind and went to the river. Water always has a way of calming me, and there I sat by myself watching the sun sink lower every passing hour. Two hours I sat there thinking, and as the sky turned to lavender and the sun fell below the horizon, I came to a realization.
I’ve been able to handle Christmas with distraction, but I haven’t dealt with it personally.
All of these years of traveling I’ve battled feelings from my past and worked on conquering the darkness to live in the light. I’ve faced the torment of my parents deaths and of the things I witnessed as a child instead of running from it. I was able to finally accept it all, and work on my own inner turmoil and destruction to live a happier life that I fill with tangible and enriching things. Instead of wallowing in a pit of sadness and destroying myself physically and mentally, I chose to start living. But as I traveled and spent those holidays with friends in exotic places, I was hid from that wound until the holidays passed. Until the next year when I’d distract myself again and put a band-aid over it. I had focused on being in my right mind 364 days of the year, but I’ve been skipping over one that clearly still had an adverse affect.
This year was the perfect storm.
I was faced with less distraction while waiting tables, and it allowed sadness to fester. And it lead me to an urgent and desperate temporary solution. To get drunk just to forget. The last time I had that happen I nearly ruined my life forever. I realized I needed to face this as well. All day as I thought, and all day my other families were on my mind. And my mother and father. When I was abroad for holidays previously, I didn’t think too much of them. I didn’t think much about anything really, I just went along with what everyone else was doing. To think about people back home might bring back painful memories. Instead, my mind had a subconscious block. Living in the moment! The past is past and the now is life! Unless you don’t deal with your past. That mental block failed this year.
I wrestled all month with sadness and loneliness and anger. But on Christmas day, spending it alone, I reflected and really missed their presence. I missed spending Christmas with those families. My families. All of them. I had traveled, and in my journeys I was able to remove the negative attachment to holidays by ignoring it. By overlapping it with experiences. It left a hole which my environment this year opened.
I could finally miss Christmas with family without feeling pain.
After watching the sunset, I went to the movies. Going to the movies on Christmas Day has been a tradition my brother and I have done over the years since our father passed. We haven’t been very close since, but we still had that. And going to the movies alone on Christmas Day comforted me. It made me miss that ritual.
While walking home at midnight I got to see Snapchats from another one of my families. Seeing their faces all together, with the newborn babe of one of the sisters, it made me wish I was there. It made me miss them. And messages from my aunt and brother made me miss those family dinners that we’d always have, even with my awkwardness. Even though I haven’t been great at being a part of anyone’s lives for years.
I had been so afraid of experiencing any kind of emotions on Christmas since losing my parents that I pushed out all of the joy from holidays. I disconnected. Just because holidays for years have been a painful thing, it doesn’t mean it has to be. It doesn’t mean I can’t be a part of another ritual or another family’s celebration. I can’t hold onto hate out of fear. And I shouldn’t hide or ignore the pain but deal with it. It ook years to stop living a life fully consumed by negativity, and spending Christmas alone this year made me take one more positive step. Allowed that hole to start to be filled. Allowed darker parts of my past to stop holding a place in my heart.
This year, spending Christmas alone made me truly cherish the ones that are in my life and do want me to be a part of their family traditions. Not to be afraid. To not just work on being happy 364 days of the year and dread another, but to lose the encumbering worries. Shed the weight of nostalgia, of the old wound that wouldn’t allow me to move on during Christmas time, or any holiday for that matter. To not think that showing emotions will bring about a catastrophe, but to be present. To be a part of new traditions and rituals, and to make new ones.
My ghosts of Christmas past will no longer haunt me.
<< Author’s Note >>
This is, by far, one of the longest entries on the blog. Though I wrote it as a memoir like the other’s I’ve shared in case you can relate or facing the same issues, I think I also needed to write this for myself. Even reflecting all day Christmas, I still had to put my thoughts out there and sort through it all. While writing the middle portion about Christmas as a child, most of it was done while going through a bottle of wine. I don’t drink often and Christmas Eve I did for the pain. The wine helped ease my nerves while writing, so I apologize for any mistakes. It was a raw all out writing fest to get this out of my system. Obviously, these topics are still hard to write about, and just one day of reflection won’t make ever issue I’ve had with the weight I associate with Christmas — but it did allow me to start facing it and actually realize that I already have a lot of happy moments attached to it. I just allowed painful memories to overshadow the good.