This year, with my boys grown and moved away, my partner and I decided to simply decorate our living room for the holidays with a ficus tree, a veer away from tradition. Rather than purchase a cut-your-own pine Christmas tree, for the first time we chose to honour our own tree—the one which lives with us every day in our home.
My partner, a native of the UK, has a history of disappointment and sadness at our New Zealand Christmas. I, too, was transplanted to New Zealand (by choice, of course…). Getting used to a summertime Christmas hasn’t always been easy for me, either.
Seasonally-inverted southern hemisphere Kiwis (New Zealanders) have imported the northern hemisphere holiday traditions—but someone forgot to change the dates. In doing so, we’ve essentially lost the fundamental reason for celebration of the midwinter festival: the anticipated return of life after the still-to-come times of hardship—the release from darkness and want, toward the time of renewal and plenty.
©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojda
Early on, I realized this concept was more deeply ingrained in me than I’d dreamed. Moving to New Zealand was a big change in more ways than one.
Whether we move away from our childhood home or relocate a long way from our families and close friends later in life, we may find the need to create our own holiday traditions. As children, and now grandchildren, enter our lives, our roles may change even further, necessitating further adjustments.
Those living far from their birth homes often confirm that being away from family and close friends can be daunting.
Tell me about it.
My first December 25th in New Zealand had to rate as my most depressing Christmas up until that date. I had a wonderful boss, but no real friends outside of work, as I had spent every weekend with my boyfriend out on the coast, an hour away from home—and he ended our relationship over the phone, out of the blue, on 23 December.
Looking back, I can see it was for the best, but at the time… let’s say it wasn’t ideal.
On the other hand, sometimes one must sink to great depths to plumb the true strength of one’s spirit and guts.
Eyes blurred by tears, I managed to create the day for myself by cutting out intricate paper snowflakes from wrapping paper.
I still remember as if it were yesterday: The paper was red on one side, white on the other, and thin enough for light to shine through it. In fine pencil, I wrote around the perimeter of each, and on inner circles, what the holiday was really about—about the day being about love, and not presents. About those whom I cared for, and who cared about me. About the beautiful country in which I had ensconced myself, the tremendous job as an equine vet in an otherwise eight-man dairy practice.
The little piece of NZ beside my home on the cover of my third novel
As the years passed, I found new ways of satisfying the yearnings in my heart at Christmas time when I was unable to return to my family for the holidays. Celebrating a sit-down, full-on Midwinter dinner on 21 June for a roomful of my Kiwi friends, many of whom had never experienced a northern hemisphere Christmas dinner, not only did something for them, but did something for my own heart. It gave me my Christmas back and let me begin to enjoy true Kiwi summertime Christmases.
“Christmas is so commercialised, I don’t want anything to do with it,” I’ve heard from several friends lately. This isn’t a problem for me. I don’t watch television at all, and since I began writing, I avoid town… even my radio time has diminished. I don’t hear the commercials or Christmas jingles, so the commercialism isn’t a part of my life. I have only my memories and traditions from which to browse.
In speaking with my partner in mid-June about it, he said Christmas really didn’t mean anything to him. We discussed it at length, what would make it for him, what makes it for me. The result? He enjoyed his holiday, and this year we will have a midwinter Christmas feast and hopefully, he will regain his joy of the holidays, no matter what time of year they arrive.
I hope this helps someone, estranged by distance or circumstance from loved ones, find peace in their life.
In Once Upon a Vet School #7, Lena Takes a Foal, Lena finds herself in a situation. She was going to stay in her vet school town and take extra Large Animal ICU shifts over the holidays, as her family was out of the country, but she was invited home with her hero, Kit.
Here’s a little excerpt of their traditional Christmas:
Once Upon a Vet School #7, Lena Takes a Foal
Kit’s pickup eased off the highway into his family’s driveway, snow crunching beneath the tires. He slowed as we approached a beautiful bay Thoroughbred with a matching foal at foot, standing behind the post and rail fence.
“She’s my favorite jumper — the one I kept when everything got split up,” he said, and tightened his jaw.
“Glad you still have her then,” I said, taking a deep breath, and squeezed his fingers. “It’ll all be fine.”
“I know. Thank you for comin’ home with me,” he said, as we drove on toward the house.
“Glad you asked,” I said, taking my eyes off the pair of horses and looking forward through the windshield at what could only be Kit’s family members, by their resemblance.
“The welcoming committee awaits.” He smiled and shut off the engine, opened my door and handed me out into the freezing, dazzling sunshine, accented by the tang of the snow-drenched pines. His arm, warm over my shoulders, led me toward the group.
Any anxiety I might have had about meeting his family vanished into thin air as handshakes turned to hugs. Kit’s sister, a female version of him, stood tall and leggy in designer clothing and manicured nails, while his father offered a hint of the distinguished gentleman Kit would become. His beautiful mother was kindness itself as she pulled us in the door, toward her warm, cinnamon-scented farmhouse-style kitchen.
Christmas music played in the background when we eventually migrated from the hand-hewn kitchen table toward the living room with our foaming mugs of fresh eggnog. The huge tree caught my attention, its fairy lights and ornaments glittering against long pine needles, but my mouth dropped open at the view of Lake Tahoe completely filling the longest wall of the room. Its blue-black expanse shimmered against the snow on the surrounding mountains.
“Who’s dishing out the presents?” Kit’s mother asked, settling herself on the sofa.
“My turn.” Kit’s sister smiled and began delivering packages around the room.
I hadn’t expected anything, but had made gifts over the month since Kit had invited me. For his mother, a gardening apron; his sister, some padded hangers for her fashionable clothes; and for his pop, a big tin of the Danish Christmas cookies I’d grown up making with my family. Kit had already inhaled most of his cookies on the way up the mountain.
Soon there was a pile of gifts beside me. I stared at Kit over the top of it, my mouth open.
“What did you expect? You’re part of the family, now.
Enjoy it,” he said, and leaned across to kiss me.
My face heated. I couldn’t have been more pleased, as I picked up the first gaily wrapped package.
“A western shirt,” Kit said, holding up his first present. “I haven’t had a new one in years, thank you, Lena!”
“That forest green with chocolate is perfect on you,
Kit,” his sister said. “It looks designer, where did it come from?” She turned to me.
“It’s a Lena original,” I said.
“No, it can’t be,” she said, peering over her brother’s shoulder at the label. “It is!”
“What does it say?” his mother asked.
“Made Expressly for Kit by Lena,” she said.
Kit pulled it on and clicked the pearl snaps.
“It fits,” he said, astonished. “They never fit… and it’s actually long enough.”
“Of course, it fits, I’m a professional. Just remind me to give back your ratty old denim work shirt that was falling apart at the seams.”
“You didn’t cut it apart, did you?” Kit said, horror written all over his face.
“Your precious shirt is safe,” I said, squeezing his fingers. “I know how long it must’ve taken to get the fabric that soft.”
“You got that right,” he said, with a grin.
I glanced around, but everyone was absorbed elsewhere.
“Truth be told,” I whispered, “you might not get it back.”
He frowned, and I quirked my lips at him.
“What have you done with it?” His brows narrowed.
“Nothing, but it’s awfully nice to sleep in… it’s got your scent.”
He peeked toward the rest of the family, then turned back to me, eyes glowing.
“Now that, I’d like to see,” he said, in an undertone. “You can keep it, if that’s why you need it.” He chuckled.
The first present I opened was a beautiful copy of Robert Frost’s Birches.
“That’s for you, my dear,” Kit’s mother said, after I unwrapped it, “because you’re a swinger of birches.” Her eyes glowed as she gazed from me to her son and back again.
Everyone was happy with my homemade gifts and I was touched by the thought that had gone into their presents for me.
Kit disappeared for a moment, then returned to the room carrying a large, gaily decorated box. I glanced up at him with a smile and returned to reading about birches in the snow, my legs tucked up beneath me on the sofa.
All talk in the room ceased and I looked up to see Kit standing before me.
“This is for you.” He gently handed the package to me and sat down. “It’s breakable. Very.”
Looking sideways at him, I slipped my feet to the floor and pulled the end of the silk ribbon to untie the bow, then pulled off the paper. Whatever it was, it’d been packed securely.
Kit cut the heavy tape securing the box with his pocket knife and I opened the flaps.
Want to read more?
Once Upon a Vet School #7 is available in print and digital. See details on my website here
It’s also available as part of Author’s of Main Street’s current boxed set Christmas Babies on Main Street here
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Looking forward to hearing from you soon.
Enjoy creating your own holiday traditions!