I was born in Arlington, VA, in the midst of a snow storm in early January 1988. Of the following seven Christmas holidays spent in the US, I have little memory, except that my aunt who had four sons and no daughters and my paternal grandparents used to spoil me with all the dolls and dresses that a little girl in the family could wish for. According to my parents there was even a pregnant Barbie whose stomach would open up to reveal a baby doll inside. I still remember when I went to visit my grandmother on her deathbed, and when I found a half-finished handmade dress for one of my dolls in her chest of drawers, I cried.
My family moved to Hanoi, Vietnam when I was eight and my sister, two. Tet (Chinese New Year’s) was a much bigger festival than Christmas in Hanoi, where no one celebrated Christmas and it was an ordinary work day. My parents did their best to maintain some American holiday traditions despite the chilly, gray and dreary weather. My German homeschool teacher used to make elaborate Advent calendars filled with gifts, and sometimes we baked Christmas cookies together. Our attempt at a gingerbread house fared poorly in the humid Hanoi weather.
My father would go to church regularly. Christmas and Easter are some of the rare occasions when the rest of our family join him. In Hanoi, we once attended midnight mass at the main Vietnamese Catholic Cathedral there; security guards of the communist regime stood outside watching over the festivities.
We moved to Europe when I was 12. Since then we have spent Christmas in our home in the French countryside whether we were living in Sarajevo or London. One of the gloomiest Christmases of my childhood was when my sister and I were living with our grandfather in our house in the midst of renovation in France. Due to my parents’ work, my Mom was with our dog Yinyang in Sarajevo, and my Dad living alone in Washington, DC. That Christmas my parents noticed how thin I had become in the few months with our family torn apart across continents. The doctor forbade me from returning to ballet classes until I had gained enough weight. That edict helped me recover quickly by spring, but still I have a vivid memory of a particularly cold winter.
My family often invited friends from overseas who were stranded in Europe to spend the holidays at our home. My parents who to this day maintain the Christmas stocking and Santa Claus tradition always made sure that there were enough stockings and presents for everyone. However, our French neighbors greatly disapproved of our family’s traditional Christmas dinner — my mom’s homemade New England clam chowder; later replaced by bouillabaisse. They grudgingly joined us for the soup before sitting through a freezing midnight mass in the local church, and always made sure to bring the traditional French “Bouche de Noel” for desert – a log-shaped cake of cream and/or ice cream.
In my first year at Oxford I became close friends with a Japanese girl from Nara, Kaoru, while I was an exchange student at Kansai Gakuin. I invited Kaoru to spend Christmas with my family the following year. My Bajan Canadian cousin, and Sarah, a dancer friend from New York also visited over the holidays that year. The day after Christmas my cousin, Kaoru and I traveled to Paris to meet Sarah flying in from New York. This was before everyone had smartphones. While I waited in the cold, Gare de Lyon train station waiting for my friend to arrive, my cousin and Kaoru went sightseeing. After waiting for over four hours, I finally realized that I had gotten the date wrong and that Sarah wasn’t going to show up until the next day. My cousin and I were both on a budget, but wanted to spend some more time in Paris.
Somehow we convinced Kaoru and ourselves that it would be fun to spend the night out and about for as little money as possible on a cold December 26th in Paris. First, we walked through the city of lights and then visited the recently opened Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum open till midnight. After that we still had the whole night ahead of us to kill. Being Boxing Day (December 26th) and in the midst of the holidays, many Paris bars and nightclubs were closed, and most would have been above our budgets. We ended up in an overpriced, dive bar in the Marais and tried to make their cheapest non-alcoholic drinks last for as long as possible. Eventually, Kaoru and I fell asleep at our table. We woke up to find a drunk racist Frenchman picking a fight with my cousin, which escalated to the point where we had to run out of the bar into the cold Paris night. We ended up spending early morning at Gare de Lyon train station.
Another year Kaoru and an American classmate from Oxford, Sam, came to visit. Speaking Japanese, we hiked around the frost-covered vineyards in the French countryside. We froze on that hike so the next day we spent eating chocolate, studying, and doing yoga to an exercise video that we found in the family VHS collection.
For the first few years when I was living in Japan I would go home to my family’s place in France for Christmas. But in 2013 I was too poor to fly home. That year I was in a long-distance relationship with a Frenchman, who was scheduled to spend the holidays with me in Japan. Unfortunately, he dumped me a week before Christmas. I found myself spending the holidays alone in a foreign country with $50 in my bank account. Luckily, I had just started a job waitressing at a wine bar and my manager was willing to add me into some extra shifts over the holidays. On Christmas Eve, one of our regular customers bought a bottle of champagne for all the employees. What could have been a miserable Christmas became the beginning of a friendship with strangers.
In Japan, Christmas, as Valentine’s Day, can be another excuse for a commercial, romantic date for couples. However, New Year’s is one of the few holidays when Japanese people return home to their families. The constantly open shops, bars and restaurants actually close down. I love the quiet peacefulness of Tokyo at that time of year and the tradition of going to a shrine on one of the first few days of the year and eating a special meal of auspicious foods, called ‘osechi ryori’.
My second Christmas spent in Tokyo I was living in a shared apartment with two British men. We threw a huge home, potluck party with friends from all over. My third Christmas in Tokyo I had to move out of that apartment in the midst of rehearsing for two plays simultaneously. I would come home at 9 or 10 pm on my bicycle in the cold, and fill cardboard boxes and monitor sales of larger furniture on craigslist. The highlight of that year’s holidays was an elaborate fruit basket my Dad had delivered to me and which I shared with my colleagues at the theatre.
In the US, Christmas is a time for families to come together. The holiday season can also be a very tense period due to various financial and emotional pressures that people load onto it; and can accentuate disparities in people’s fortunes. Through the holidays I have spent away from my family, I have come to realize that the greatest pleasure in life is being with the people we care about, our family and friends. I am deeply grateful to all of those people with whom I shared a meal, toasted New Years together, argued, laughed and cried together, and who have still remained friends throughout the years.