Christmas. Hannukah. Kwanzaa. Diwali. Whatever you celebrate (or don’t) in December, the holidays are upon us.
Whether you are a solid member of #teamchristmas, take December with a side of Grinch or get through the month by planning next year’s island escape, it’s all good. You go, you! Do your holidays (or not) the way that makes you most content.
Personally, I waver between (a) and (c). I used to be an “all-in” Christmas cheerleader back in the States. A huge tree. Every nook inside the house decked out in holiday attire. The outside surfaces festooned with twinkling lights. Cookie baking parties. Christmas movie viewing nights. The whole nine yards.
Then I moved to the islands. Turns out that perpetual 90F temps and always sunny skies don’t really put you in the holiday mood the same way that a Midwestern snowstorm and Christmas carols playing at Target do.
Lesson #1: Once A Holiday Lover, Always A Holiday Lover
For the first few years of my island girl status, I basically ignored the holidays. I was just having too damn much fun on the beach to think about baking cookies, trimming a tree or mulling cider. I was far more concerned with chilling beers, firing up the barby and learning to kiteboard.
But old habits die hard and eventually the yearning to re-establish some sort of holiday traditions won out over my Malibu Barbie beach life.
So I embarked on Mission Island Christmas. The goal? To acquire the ultimate Christmas symbol (to me) … a giant evergreen tree, fully decked out in stylish sophistication.
This would be easy! And fun! I could already feel the Christmas cheer building!
Lesson #2: Island Ideas Rarely Turn Out As Planned…Roll With It
But cheer quickly turned to disappointment. Turns out, Christmas decor was not all that in demand on my tiny rock in the sun. At least not all those years ago.
After a fruitless search at the usual stores, I lucked out and found a scraggly, sad little 3-foot artificial tree in one of the local Chinese markets. One that made Charlie Brown’s tree look positively Rockefeller Center-ready. Oh, and did I mention it was, like, $75? Okay, that would have to do. Budget be damned, I needed a tree and this appeared to be my only option.
I wish I could say that finding the rest of the items on my “must-have” shopping list was easier than the tree. But I would be lying. Apparently, decorating a pine tree with twinkling lights and shiny ornaments was a slightly foreign concept to the local population of my chosen Caribbean island. At least back in the day.
I persevered though (and dramatically lowered my expectations), and eventually cobbled together enough accessories to make my sad little tree look mildly festive. Was it the sophisticated tree of my dreams (and my past life)? Hell to the no. Would Martha Stewart approve? Only if she were blindfolded.
It was tacky. It was gaudy. It was exactly what I would NOT have done in the States.
But it was a Christmas tree, damn it! And it was the start of a new holiday tradition, island style. Who needed white fairy lights and delicate glass ornaments when you could have hot pink flashing bulbs, large plastic orbs in hues of chartreuse, magenta and orange and a mildly malevolent looking angel for the tree top? (Sadly, no photographs survive of that first island Christmas tree.)
Most importantly, though, my Charlie Brown wannabe tree gave me a place to hang the few sentimental ornaments I had the good sense to ship down when I moved away and left nearly everything else behind.
Lesson #3: Your Memories Follow You Everywhere…Even The Tropics
These ornaments, of course, are a bit of a double-edged sword. They are what makes it both happy and heartbreaking for me each December. They are also why I totally understand the reasons some of my friends eschew the holidays altogether.
These dozen or so sentimental ornaments, sprinkled among my other pretty baubles (thanks to a brief stint in the UK, my tree decor was upgraded since that early rock Christmas), are essentially a first-class ticket to board the memory lane train. And there are some journeys you aren’t always ready to take.
Every year that I decide to decorate the tree (which has been all but the first one in the tropics, as it turns out), I know exactly how the process will unfold. I know it so well, in fact, that I usually pre-stock the wine fridge a few days ahead.
I will remove the lid from the box of ornaments, gently unwrap these treasures from their bubble wrap and prepare for memories to flood my head. Uninvited but welcomed at the same time. Good, bad, happy, sad. I know that every special ornament will tell a story. And that I will also cry. Joyful tears. Melancholy tears. Tears of longing and loss. They will all well up and take over. Usually until late that night, when I finally watch Christmas Vacation (which always makes me laugh).
There will be wine or strong cocktails involved, too. Because, hey, weeping quietly alone, drenched in sweat, sitting on the living room floor with Christmas décor spread out around me always seems like the right time to down a few cold ones.
This whole ritual is is what puts me squarely on the fence each November when I start thinking about whether to do a tree or skip the holidays altogether. Skipping always seems less messy. No crying. No emotions. No vacuuming up endless bits of plastic pine needles (who knew fake trees could shed, too?!). And as an added bonus: I know I’ll also save myself several hours of dripping sweat as I climb and descend a ladder in 90F temps.
But skipping is akin to not letting the memories in. And while that is certainly tidier, it also means I might forget some of the past that each ornaments conjures up.
The clothespin reindeer my son made with his own little hands when he was five. The ornament with my daughter’s kindergarten picture on it. These take me back to cold, snowy Christmases, watching them tear open presents while the fire roared and we all sat around in pajamas and fuzzy slippers, warm mugs of coffee (generously dosed with Baileys, of course) in hand. Imaging that life would always be like that.
The glass snowman ornament hand-crafted by my friend and her kids then gifted at one of our “friends-are-family” Christmases in Seattle. This one always reminds me of those surreal years in the Pacific Northwest where we were all chasing the American dream (and living very duplicitous lives, as it later turned out), far from our extended families, with only our small group of friends to celebrate the season together.
The Corgi ornament with the grinning pup staring back at me. A reminder of a faithful companion who was the one constant in my life for 12 years and across three continents.
These are, of course, all memories of my pre-island holidays. Those holidays evolved over time, of course. Kids grew up. Relationships dissolved. And life moved on in really unexpected ways, as life tends to do.
Lesson #4: Memories Can Be Great Teachers…If You Let Them
Now I find myself on a Caribbean rock, thousands of miles and an ocean separating me from many of my loved ones. My tree today bears all those old memories plus a host of new ones, courtesy of treasures collected during more recent adventures.
A large, shiny union jack in gleaming red and blue. A macrame hand-craft from a new island friend. A tacky yet irresistible sparkly pineapple that I happened upon at the local hardware store. (Yes, our rock has grown up and become more Americanized. Today you can find everything you need for Christmas decorating here. Including large inflatable snowmen. I know, #wtf, right?)
And when I’m being introspective (as putting up a tree tends to make me), I have to face the fact that I’ve given up a lot to chase my dreams. To live life on my own terms.
But let’s be completely honest, ok? No huge decision comes without costs, and I’ve learned that the hard way. Few things bring the outcome of my choices into sharper focus than this bizarre tradition of covering an evergreen tree with lights and ribbon.
But every year I do it despite the emotions that I know come along with opening that Pandora’s box of ornaments. I guess there are just some memories I don’t ever want to forget. Some rituals I will cling to forever.
Of course, the pretty tree quickly becomes the focal point of my living room – a crazy juxtaposition with the sparkling ocean and palm trees beyond the window behind it – and the sad emotions evaporate just as fast, replaced by appreciation for this Christmas symbol.
I am filled with gratitude. Thankful that something so innocent and unassuming can evoke such a strong reaction. Grateful, too, that I am still around, healthy and able to appreciate and enjoy everything life has given me. Many I knew and loved once have not been so lucky.
And as I pass by the tree in the course of my daily routine, I occasionally stop and gaze at one or another ornament – some old, some new, all treasured. And I realize that it is perfectly OK to conjure up the past. To let it flood you with emotion for a little while. That without these bittersweet memories, life wouldn’t be quite as rich or nuanced. And that you can never fully appreciate how far you’ve come or how much you’ve endured unless you are reminded of a few milestones along the way.
Then I gaze out the window at the vast Caribbean Sea spread out before me, listen to the the palm trees rustling by the pool, look around at the comfortable home I share with a different, smaller family and realize that this is exactly where I am supposed to be right now. That every decision I’ve made, every memory I’ve created, every step I’ve taken, have all guided me to this very spot.
Not consciously, of course. But that’s the way of the universe, isn’t it? If we knew the precise road map ahead of time, how boring would life be? And would we even start the journey?
I also understand, courtesy of this objectively strange tree ritual, that even though decisions might come with high costs, being at peace with yourself is totally worth it. There simply is no other option, actually.
And that makes every tear and drop of sweat absolutely worth it.
Now where did I put my glass of wine? I’ve got more Christmas movies to watch.
I’m a writer living on the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire. Originally from the U.S., I followed my heart to the tropics in 2011 at the wizened age of 43. Since then, I’ve been blogging to inspire and entertain. I love kitesurfing, a good gin & tonic, and corgis.
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