For the last 15 years my family and I have spent almost every Christmas abroad. Sydney, Okinawa, Dubai and, for the last four years, Al Ain.
Everything in Australia runs backward. Toilet water swirls counterclockwise, down is up, and our winter is their summer. However, they still celebrate Christmas on December 25, so in 1997, when my wife Maura and I spent the holidays in Sydney, everything was normal. Sort of.
The first thing we did on Christmas morning was call room service. Nothing evokes the holiday season like food ordered by phone and cooked by a stranger. I asked for coffee, juice and waffles. "Some snags with that," the telephone operator said. I thought she was implying there was a problem with our order: "What kind of snag?" "No, no..." She quickly diagnosed the true snag, which was linguistic, and translated for a hapless Northern-Hemispherite. "Snags are bangers? Do you want bangers with your waffles?" Thanks, that clears up everything. "Sure, a few bangers please." I didn't know that a banger, or snag, was a sausage, but I did want to get off the phone.
Later, we took a bus to Bondi Beach and spent the day lying in the sun. 100 degrees-not a snowflake in sight. It wasn't yuletidey, but it was magical in a completely different way. No anxiety about preparing an elaborate meal for the whole family or fighting to purchase last-minute must-have gifts. We had pizza for Christmas dinner, and I can't remember exchanging presents, though I'm sure we did. On the beach, I dived into the water, forgetting all about those huge antipodean waves. My contact lenses floated away (backwards, probably). My wife had to take me by the hand for the rest of the afternoon, even to the door of the men's bathroom. I had to squint to see the young Australians walking down the beach in Santa hats and red booties.
Our first Christmas with a child was 1999, on Okinawa. The island may be subtropical, but their winter is our winter, so we donned long-sleeve T-shirts to combat the nippy 80-degree weather. We decided to have a more traditional holiday for Annie, our newborn. I'm not sure if we owned ornaments, stockings or holiday knickknacks, but if we did they were in storage back in Springfield. Maura, a former kindergarten teacher, made her own decorations from construction paper, cotton balls, ribbons and glitter glue. We bought a potted palm tree and trimmed it with bespoke angels and stars. Maura cooked a very small turkey with all the trimmings. After dinner, we walked to the end of the block, jumped in the East China Sea and went snorkeling.
2002. We had our second child, Kate, in Dubai. Our holidays had been, for the past few years, laid-back, unconventional and extremely warm. But things were different now. Annie was 3, and had discovered Disney princesses, who, as I explained, did not wield actual authority or have constitutional powers. Nonetheless, Annie was their loyal subject and thought the primary colors were pink, purple and a different shade of pink. She wanted a genuine Christmas experience, just like the ones on TV. So we bought a Douglas fir, a steal at only $200, and that was for the sad, scrawny, Charlie Brown variety. My mother-in-law came to visit, we sang Christmas carols, went out for Thai food, and, because it was wintertime in the Middle East, the temperatures had plummeted to the low-100s. We put on our warmest tank-tops and dialed down the sunblock to SPF 30.
In Dubai, it started to really feel like the holidays. It may have been that our family was bigger, that we had a real(ish) tree, or that a relative came to stay. It might also have been the shopping malls. The UAE is growing at a rate that makes kudzu seem lethargic. A new mall sprouts up nearly every week. Dubai Mall, squatting below the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, is the world's largest shopping center.
In the UAE, like Texas, bigger is better. Our apartment building-it had its own shopping mall!-was decorated for every major American, British and Emirati holiday. The Halloween party had jack-o-lanterns and whirling dervishes. It got to the point where I expected pony rides, face-painting and bouncy castles for Third-Cousin Appreciation Week.
By Christmas 2011 we had three daughters and were living in a small, provincial city in the Emirates. Grace was just a toddler. Annie and Kate didn't like Disney anymore, or princesses, or the color pink; Grace was happy to play with boxes and wrapping paper. We decided to have a small Christmas with fewer presents. The kids were very mature and unselfish about this. Instead of mailing gifts home to our family, we donated money to a local charity. If you live abroad, postage fees can be more expensive than the actual presents (and of course it's nice to help others).
For dinner we didn't eat pizza, Thai food or cook a turkey. Instead, we went to a friend's party. He invited 30 expatriates, from all over the world, to a potluck dinner. Maura baked a few pies and I ... supervised. A few of the guests brought parents or children who were visiting from home, but most of us were far away from our extended families. Some of the singles were, understandably, quite excited to spend the day with colleagues and new friends.
The Brits came with plum pudding, mince pies and funny paper hats. The South Africans sang Christmas carols in Afrikaans. There was no single holiday tradition to draw upon, so we had to create our own mongrel version of Christmas. I don't know whether this was better than a traditional holiday, but I do know that we had experiences overseas that we never could have had at home, and I'm grateful that we gave our children something unique that they'll always remember.
Another thing I know is that we're really looking forward to Christmas 2012. It will be our first real American holiday in years, and we'll appreciate it all the more because of this. I'm hoping for snow, and the kids will share my excitement just as soon as I explain what snow is.
Andrew Madigan lives in Springfield with his wife Maura and three daughters, Annie, Kate and Grace. He spent the last 20 years working his way around the
world with stops in Australia, Dubai, Tokyo, the UK, Korea, New York, Al Ain, St. Louis and exotic northwest Ohio. He's a freelance writer who's trying to
sell a novel, so if you own a publishing company and would like to buy his book, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Madigan lives in Springfield with his wife Maura and three daughters, Annie, Kate and Grace. He spent the last 20 years working his way around the world with stops in Australia, Dubai, Tokyo, the UK, Korea, New York, Al Ain, St. Louis and exotic northwest Ohio. He's a freelance writer who's trying to sell a novel, so if you own a publishing company and would like to buy his book, please contact him at email@example.com.