Christmas in London is not unlike Christmas in America. The festive lights, the cold temperatures, the mad dash for sale items. I, however, like to think I am a different person in London than I am in America. I’ve spent the last four months living in a flat across the street from Hyde Park in Kensington. Thirty other students and I study the royal family on weekdays and explore Europe on weekends. I was considering myself quite cosmopolitan and international. I had mastered the tube and knew which airlines had the best deals to Italy. I wore lipstick even if I was only dashing to the corner store to buy crisps and cider.
Now the semester has ended, my friends have flown home, and my family has decided to rent an apartment in London and celebrate Christmas with me abroad. They bring humbling reminders that I am not truly a sophisticated world traveler, but a petulant middle child.
I collect the four of them at Heathrow: my parents and my two brothers. Jacob spots me first and wraps me in a hug. He is younger than I am, but several inches taller. We sort out the suitcases, exchange dollars for pounds, and I lead them to the tube, insisting that we drop our bags off at the flat, and then head directly to a pub for lunch.
“We’re exhausted,” my dad announces, speaking for everyone.
“I know you are, but the best way to fight jet lag is to get on local time immediately. If you sleep now, your inner clock will be off for the rest of the trip,” I advise. Feeling sage, I go in the bathroom to reapply my Boot’s brand lipstick and come out to find that everyone is already asleep.
Our flat is affordable, which means it’s not near a tube stop. I prefer to walk briskly and with purpose. My brothers prefer to stop and photograph every sign that makes them giggle: Cockburn Street, Handjob Car Washes, Mind the Gap. My parents amble along, pointing out the “Gherkin” and eavesdropping on British accents. They are doing what everyone should be doing on vacation, enjoying themselves. I’m annoyed for no reason and walk several paces ahead, yelling at them to hurry up and rolling my eyes when they forget to look right first, then left at street crossings.
Christmas Eve arrives. My mom asks, “Are you happy we came?” I feel so guilty, I almost cry. At 22, this is my first Christmas away from my big, extended family with lots of cousins and traditions. At 49, this is my mom’s first Christmas away as well, an especially sad one, she lost her father less than two months before, and I knew how much she wanted to be with her mom on Christmas. Instead, she was in London, to be with me, and doing her best to bring our traditions with her. She designates a small plant as our Christmas tree, secretly wraps gifts, and braves the British meat counter to find a Christmas ham, though I think we end up with shoulder instead.
The five of us make a cheery scene that night at a pub for dinner. We drink pints of Stella, order fish and chips, and reminisce about Christmas in the states. I soak in the comfort of their familiarity, our shared history. The waitress brings us each a traditional Christmas cracker, a cardboard tube wrapped in bright paper. It is meant to be pulled at opposite ends, like a wishbone. When the cardboard finally gives way to force it makes a small popping sound and splits in half. I feel much like a Christmas cracker that Christmas Eve. In one direction, I want to be the good daughter my parents deserve, home for the holidays. At the same time, I feel a pull in the opposite direction, to set out and find my own way in the world.
Since Christmas in London five years ago, I’ve celebrated Christmas in other countries and with other people’s relatives. Yet I always find myself remembering London and what I learned about my family. They know what I look like without lipstick. They know I am impatient and edgy. I know they love me anyway, no matter where I celebrate the holidays.
Have you celebrated holidays away from home? Share about your experiences in the comment section.