Our family has always had our Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve. As I sat last night, with our five grandchildren, along with our two children and their spouses/fiances, I couldn’t help remember those 14 years when we spent Christmas outside our home country. The circle of folks around the trees those years was usually very small – just the four of us – my wife, myself, and our two children.
But there were years when the circle was larger.
Like the time my wife’s parents came to visit us in Costa Rica at Christmas. I think our kids spent the entire two weeks giggling at their grandfather’s antics. My mother-in-law got chased by oxen during the oxcart parade in San Antonio de Escazu. And our hearts had no idea that this would be the last time we would see grandpa. He left us in February, shortly after our joyous time together. But the laughter and the lap talks will never be forgotten, nor the last “I love you” as they got into the taxi that would take them to the airport.
Then there was the time in Honduras, when it was just my wife and I and my parents. We had such a fun time showing them our first adopted country. We traveled by bus to the Copan Ruins and spent Christmas Eve in a small, locally-run hotel. Firecrackers woke us up at midnight. My parents thought we’d been overrun by revolutionaries, but it was the just local Hondurans expressing the joy of the season with noise and explosion.
Then there was the time when my sister and her husband arrived on Christmas morning in Costa Rica, carrying an extremely heavy duffel bag. When we got to the parking lot, my brother-in-law opened it up and there was a frozen turkey wrapped in the Los Angeles times, along with boxes of stuffing. It was nigh to impossible to find a turkey for Christmas dinner during those days in Costa Rica, and he just took care of that problem for us. Getting it through customs was a challenge, he told us, but pretending you didn’t understand the language (he did) got him through. And we savored that turkey like no other. During this Christmas season, he also taught our kids how wonderful chocolate bars were in your oatmeal, and they made many trips to the local pulperia (corner store) to keep the oatmeal supplied with sugar and flavor.
Sometimes the circle was larger, but it wasn’t family members that expanded it. It was the time spent with other expats who also had a small circle around their tree. Together, we made a larger circle. We brought food from our home countries, and we sang the familiar songs, and we made a bigger family because we needed it. Our friend, Ron, made a habit of inviting other expats as well as the lonely around him, to his home on Christmas. And the temporary family that was created on those Christmas Days will never be forgotten, even though we have never seen many of the people again.
Many years the circle was very small around our tree. During most of our 14 years outside our home country Christmas was spent with just the four of us. A small, tight-knit group. As I watched the four of us last night, now expanded from four to eleven, I couldn’t help think of some memories that might not seem so significant to others, but they sure defined Christmas for us, and drew us together.
Like the time we came home from school and work and found that the cutter ants were carrying off our Christmas tree, needle by needle. A long line of ants carrying needles trotted across the walls and along the floor and out the door to their underground home. We were fascinated – and, of course, my wife began a mission to find a way to get rid of those pesky ants before their nests crumbled our house foundation.
Or the time we were living in the Cayman Islands and the four of us went to the beach to see Santa ride in on a surfboard. Snow and ice and reindeer may be the Christmas tradition, but the spirit of Christmas can arrive in many ways. Even on a surfboard.
And then there was the time when we loaded the four of us plus my mother-in-law into our old, old Volvo and drove to Nicaragua from Costa Rica at Christmastime. All went well on the way there until we hit the border. The number engraved on our car motor did not match the number on our car registration. They wouldn’t let us across the border because of it – saying it might be a stolen motor. We explained, we listened, we explained again, we pleaded. But it wasn’t until my wife burst into tears, lamenting the long trip with my mother-in-law, the heat, the stress, that the border official threw up his arms and let us in. All went well until we were on the way home, late at night, somewhere in northern Costa Rica, when our headlights went out. My wife held a flashlight out the window of the car and I drove precariously. A friendly policeman helped us find a mechanic late at night in a village nearby. Christmas was alive in that little village that night.
And then there was the time my wife and I led a children’s choir musical in our little tin church with a dirt floor in Costa Rica. The place was packed, and the kids in the choir were never so proud. First time for a children’s choir and first time for a Christmas program in that squatter settlement on the edge of San Jose.
This is getting long, so I’ll bring the reminiscing to a halt. It’s hard not to keep remembering. But, for those who are living the Expat Christmas this year wherever you may be, enjoy the sights, the sounds, the smells, the people, the experiences, the differences. The spirit of Christmas can be celebrated in so many ways. People and experiences are important. Make memories. Make a family where you are. Share the love that Christmas represents with those who cross your path in your adopted country. Experience new traditions. Enjoy an #ExpatChristmas.
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