My first Christmas away from home was in Thailand, a tropical shock to my internal calendar and real suckerpunch of homesickness. I took a beach holiday with Thai Buddhists and German Atheists, all of whom looked away politely when I got blubbery hearing "Last Christmas" at the 7-Eleven. It was the first December when I didn't feel Christmas anywhere around me, and that absence was strange and sad.
My second Christmas away was in Korea; a nosedive into expat communion when I was served deep-fried turkey at a pricey restaurant while the bottles of wine outnumbered the people at our table. It felt like Christmas all right - the crisp winter air, the smell of homemade cookies, groups of friends at cosy house parties, going around the room giving thanks in a sweet moment that was later deemed "kinda gay." Still, it was the holidays all right, in all their cheesy glory.
Now, I'm in Turkey, where jolly St. Nick has been appropriated into the secular New Years celebrations, along with decorated trees, gift-swapping, even Jingle Bells. All the stuffed stockings, the twinkling lights, the plywood Elf workshops set up in shopping malls, they're all around; everything is here except the holiday itself. "Happy 2010!" say the greeting cards on which Santa snacks on cookies by a roaring fire. The whole affair has had me doing double-takes for weeks.
Christmas has always been the biggest holiday on the calendar for me, and spending it far from family was a strange adulthood adjustment to make. Now, on the cusp of my third non-Canadian Christmas, I'm cherry-picking the small traditions I want to hold onto: a screening of The Muppet Christmas Carol, cinnamon buns for breakfast, the exchanging of gifts. Of course, a good part of the day will be reserved for phone calls to family and friends. Their absences are felt, but the phone calls and love-filled exchanges will be love-filled enough for me.