The Comfort of the Familiar

Last night I went to my first Christmas market of the year. Christmas markets have become my favourite Christmas tradition since moving to Europe, and every year I’m eager to try as many new places as I can, while still hitting up some familiar markets, soaking in the joyful holiday atmosphere as I sip on a Glühwein (with Amaretto) or two. It’s nice to be able to stroll through the markets outside for a couple of hours after years of being trapped inside during -20°C winters.

Thinking about my new favourite traditions got me reminiscing about the Christmases I grew up with. They weren’t always the exact same – I’ve lived in different houses, there was a time when I didn’t have a cat, and my go-to Christmas albums only came out in 2011. But what I remember fondly from the last ten years or so is trying to wake up early on December 25th but not managing to get out of bed before 9, seeing all the presents that had appeared overnight, turning on the radio to non-stop Christmas music, and sitting on the floor passing out the presents while my cat played with the wrapping paper. Breakfast was just helping yourself to the plate of Christmas cookies all morning and my dad always put Baileys in his coffee.

In more recent years, a few weeks before Christmas when I had a free day before my university exams, my mom and I would decorate the house. I did the tree and distributed extra ornaments in various bowls and vases while my mom put up other decorative figurines and cards. We would drink egg nog and listen to Michael Bublé’s Christmas and Justin Bieber’s Under the Mistletoe (i.e., the definitive Christmas albums of the 21st century) back-to-back while occasionally peering out the window at the snow-covered yard.

None of those traditions really exist anymore. Presents are opened on Christmas Eve so there’s no excitement when I wake up on the 25th, and like Irving Berlin I can only dream of a white Christmas. Since next weekend is already the first week of advent, I decided to put the Christmas tree today, but as my mom is on vacation we couldn’t do our usual tag-team decorating job. Our giant tree in Canada was falling apart for years, so we threw it away before moving along with its classic 90s-style tree skirt. The new tree is too small for all of our ornaments and its attached lights don’t allow for a lit-up star to go on top.

I didn’t really notice these minor differences the last two Christmases. In 2014 we lived in my grandma’s house and it felt like a vacation Christmas. Last year we were moving into my mom’s house and the decorations were just hastily put up in between all the building of furniture. This year I was really getting into the Christmas spirit, belting out both Mariah Carey and the Biebs’ parts in “All I Want for Christmas is You (SuperFestive!)” so loudly it scared the cat (and probably the neighbours), until I suddenly realised my future Christmas traditions would never ever be the same as what I grew up with. It was one of those crushing moments that comes along with becoming an adult. I decided to open a beer and spent the rest of the tree-decorating session crying about my lost childhood(/studenthood).

I’ll admit I’ve been having a bit of an existential crisis lately. My various future plans for myself since university have all gone so horribly wrong that I can no longer even picture myself doing any of them in the future (except running a marathon), an incompetent man who shall remain nameless was somehow elected as leader of the free world, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary Before the Flood – which I made the mistake of watching the day after the US election – made me feel so helpless and pessimistic that I sometimes find myself wondering what is the point in doing anything, at all, ever.

My whole anecdote, while also being cathartic to write, just goes to show that moving away from home is hard. I already knew this from one semester studying abroard. You learn new things about yourself, other places, and other people, and they affect the way you think and act even if you don’t realise it. When I studied abroad I at least had a safety net back home; and while my house felt foreign to me at first when my exchange ended, it eventually became a comfortable place again where I could celebrate my last (to date) Christmas in Canada in the usual way.

After living in a different country for a few months during my exchange, it was natural that I got the itch to move somewhere else again eventually. I mean, there are almost 200 countries in the world, how could I possibly justify living in only a couple when so much of the world is open for me to explore? It’s exciting to learn about a new culture, to celebrate overcoming the struggles of being an outsider, and to laugh at inside jokes with a new group of people. But when you’re thrown out of your comfort zone for so long, you can eventually have moments where all you crave is something familiar, something you know will be reliably wonderful, something you don’t have to build up from scratch like so many other things when you move somewhere new.

Sometimes I think about everything that I’ve done and that’s happened to me since I finished my undergrad degree. I tell myself the less pleasant things had to happen in order for the some of the positive outcomes to take place. I like some of the changes I’ve made to my life since moving abroad, like becoming more health-conscious. Other times I worry that the entire experience has made me more uptight and negative. Still other times I remember some of the things I gave up by moving abroad and wonder if this is the biggest mistake I’ve ever made.

My situation is thus that my parents rightfully seized the opportunity to move too once I decided not to stay in my hometown. I don’t have that perfect familiar place to go back to, so wherever I go or end up I will have to create a new home for myself with new traditions and routines.

But I am taking suggestions for better Christmas traditions than crying and drinking beer while putting up the tree.

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