When my elderly mother asked when I intended to leave for Florida for the winter (we actually go to South Carolina but Florida is her colloquial term for “south”) and I told her early November, she summarily retorted, “So you won’t be home for Christmas“.
By her own confession, Christmas is my mother’s favourite time of year, a thesis she is never reluctant to punctuate even if her acerbity has a corresponding dampening effect. I think the mystical charm of Christmas is something a lot of people might agree upon. As the Winter Solstice approaches and the snow begins to fly it is impossible to escape the persuasiveness of the festivity nurtured as it is by sparkling lights, the evocative colours of red and green and the aromatic smells of pine and cinnamon. The overwhelming sentimental feature of Christmas is that it is a family time (and I willingly confess my mother’s bona fides in preserving the holiday for that purpose alone). Most of my adolescent life was spent away at school and except for one year I always returned home for Christmas. There is perhaps no greater affront to that tradition than remaining away from home and residing outside one’s own country at Christmas time. The absence thoroughly dilutes the custom and occasionally engenders maudlin reminiscences of the chorus of “I’ll be home for Christmas” and pathetic visions of lonely rooms of stark furniture, hardly the yuletide image of a roaring fireplace in a cozy and abundant drawing room.
Gazing at the Atlantic Ocean and palmetto ferns on Christmas morning while pleasant nonetheless fails to compete with the picture of the Season which most Northerners have been raised to expect. Instead the Expat is treated to the irony of a transplanted Lapland, Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas“, wreaths mounted on the front grill of automobiles and reindeer frolicking among palm trees. It practically inspires a conviction that there is Confederate jealousy about not having a snowbound Christmas (though admittedly it is a short-lived dimension).
The one Christmas of my adolescence spent away from home was the occasion of a trip to Kingston, Jamaica when I stayed with a boarding school friend. Prior to our departure from Canada my friend reluctantly advised with noticeable embarrassment that his parents had recently divorced and that we would be staying at the residence of his mother. On Christmas morning my friend and I visited his father and new lady-friend at their residence. When we entered the father’s study he was on the telephone engaged in wishing his correspondent a “Merry Christmas!” which I thought at the time was a civilized ceremony to perform on Christmas Day, quite unlike the hysteria of gift-giving and tornadoes of colourful wrapping paper and spiked eggnog to which I was accustomed at home. Naturally Christmas was an undeniably foreign experience that year. We spent Christmas Day at the beach swimming in the roaring Caribbean. Many of the holiday gatherings with friends were Rum Punch parties which began at ten o’clock in the morning and frequently ended in the pool as a result. We danced under the palm tress in black tie at the Liguanea Club.
The fate of an expat here is like that of any other tourist, by which I mean it is predominantly an impartial experience. We are certainly not part of a Canadian enclave. In fact if one were to judge by the licence plates in the condominium parking lot we are but one of two or three who are from Canada. By the same assessment the majority of visitors are residents from nearby Georgia, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee. One couple flies here in their own plane from upstate New York. Most interlopers at this time of year are people who own the condominiums rather than rent as we do though we linger generally longer than they. These intermittent visitations do not of course promote alliances and accordingly Christmas is a private affair (though one year we joined another transient Canadian family for Christmas Dinner).
Not having a family of our own and not having cultivated the ceremony of gift-giving at this time of year (or upon any other occasion for that matter), the customary traditions of Christmas are lost on us. My late father – who seldom gave any gifts at Christmas (because he selflessly capitulated the enterprise to my mother) – mockingly exclaimed by way of defence that “Every day is Christmas” (a philosophical nugget he conspired to capture his year-round blessed fortune). Like so many children, I now have adopted the wisdom of my father. The charity and munificence of Christmas insinuates the bounty of my daily existence. Extraordinary gifts are entirely superfluous! The insight has helped me to bear the deprivation of Christmas in general.
In spite of these reservations and qualifications, the pitiable fact remains that I am as susceptible to the schmaltzy sensibilities of Christmas as ever I was! I perpetually relish re-hashing the standard Christmas carols and the annual television performance of Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. We may not have the delight of wafting smells of Christmas pudding but that I am afraid is off the dietary chart in any event! For the time being therefore I content myself to bicycle on the beach adjacent the plate of blue water with its white caps, for dinner fiery blackened Grouper with salty Collard greens and gooey, sticky cornbread and recall with measured childish amusement the name of the kitten who crossed the desert on Christmas Eve – Sandy Claws!