One of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked since returning from our month long honeymoon (over December and January) is; ‘What was it like being away for Christmas?’.
I think for most of us (at least in the UK) Christmas usually equals a much needed break from work, a time to see family and a chance to cosy up on the sofa binge watching movies and eating family sized tubs of chocolate (all to ourselves) while the cold and snowy weather batters on outside. The thought of abandoning all of those traditions we know and love (mulled wine and mince pies, snowball fights and sledging, Watching ‘Home Alone’, wearing onesies, eating a huge Turkey dinner, going for Christmas walks all wrapped up in woolens, opening presents under the Christmas tree), for a beach, a bikini and a Christmas dinner that consists of calamari and a cocktail does seem rather alien.
And hey, I’m with you. It was alien to me too. I’m as much as a homebody as the next person when it comes to Christmas – I love every one of the activities I’ve mentioned above and spending time with my family over the festive period is my favourite. 2015 was the first time I’d ever been out of the UK and away from family for Christmas.
So why do it? Well for starters it was our honeymoon, and all rules kind of go out of the window when planning that right? We got married in November and loved the idea of starting the new year together somewhere wonderful, before having to come back to the reality of 2016. We decided that it might be nice to spend our first Christmas as a married couple with just eachother, and were originally going to enjoy it together in London before jetting off on our honeymoon on Boxing Day. It was only when we started planning the trip that we realised how silly we’d be not to include Christmas within it and make the holiday even more special. We had the time off anyway, meaning a longer honeymoon and really, would we want to be doing the whole Christmas dinner and presents thing, tree decorating and making mince pies, two days before leaving our flat for a month? We worried Christmas would pass us by in a sea of packing, organising and cleaning up, and so instead we booked a flight for the 20th of December, almost a month to the day after getting married, and made Christmas part of the adventure, adding a trip to Bali into the mix.
It was probably the best decision we could have made, and undoubtedly our Christmas Day was one of the biggest adventures and most memorable days within the trip.
Spending Christmas abroad, in an exotic location was one of the most amazing experiences. Not one I’d want to repeat every year (because I really do love a mince pie) but one I’m so glad I had in my first year of married life. Seeing as it’s something so many people ask about I thought I’d share some of our experiences here on the blog, with the pros, cons and the reality of what spending Christmas on a beach is really like.
It didn’t really feel like Christmas most of the time
The majority of the time we spent away over the festive period was decidedly un-festive, which suited us just fine. We’d chosen to travel to locations that were as faraway from UK life as you could get and as such we wanted to soak up the culture and atmosphere that those exotic destinations could offer. Seeing an abundance of typically ‘British’ traditions would have been fairly disappointing after travelling for 48 hours so the lack of Christmas trees and fairy lights in favour of palm trees and fruit garlands was definitely welcome .
This did mean that for the most part, although we were aware that Christmas was happening elsewhere, in our little bubble we mostly forgot that we were approaching that key holiday date. You know what it’s like when you’re on holiday – you kind of lose track of the days – and in the same way that we couldn’t tell a Monday from a Friday, we weren’t overly conscious of whether to do something particular because it was Christmas Eve or Boxing Day. Our first stop was Hong Kong where we arrived on the 21st December and spent a day in the city before leaving for Bali in the evening of the 22nd. Considering we were so close to Christmas, there were very few signs of the holiday anywhere, even in Hong Kong where I’d expected there to be. Everything continued to operate as normal and we had no trouble hitting the tourist spots or finding places to eat. Flights continued to jet in and out and airports were as busy as ever, hotels were fully booked and staff worked through. I think when you down tools at home ready to do nothing for a week, you almost assume that everyone else is doing the same, but going away during this period really opened our eyes to how little the fact that it’s Christmas Day can mean to such a huge part of the world.
When we did see signs of Christmas, it felt really weird
Because we were in our little bubble most of the time, being suddenly jolted back to the reality of it being a festive holiday while we were in a sun sand and sea location was all kinds of strange and quite difficult for the mind to fathom. Growing up in the UK and spending 29 Christmases on British soil has meant that my view of what is synonymous with Christmas is entirely based on what is synonymous with a ‘British’ Christmas (or for me a British/Dutch Christmas), and that mostly involves images of Santa in a giant red suit and snow falling all around us. So it’s a little too mind boggling when you put that image in an altogether different setting and suddenly Santa’s enjoying a cool cocktail instead of a hot cider and Rudolph is eating a coconut instead of a carrot.
Having seen very little of Christmas other than the odd ‘Selamat Hari natal’ (Happy Christmas in Indonesian) sign painted on a blackboard at the entrance of a hotel or some Balinese tropical tree dressed in lights, on Christmas Day we cycled around to the other side of the Island we were staying on and found ourselves at one of the bigger hotel’s bars, complete with giant inflatable Santa swinging around on the grass and an Indonesian band playing ‘Merry Christmas everyone’. It was almost too much to get my head around, so when a giant thunderstorm appeared and swiftly put a stop to al beachside activities for a good few hours, I couldn’t help but feel it was attempting to restore the natural order of things.
We got to avoid all of the pre-Christmas rush
While normally the run up to Christmas can be a little hectic – finishing up work, buying presents, baking, seeing friends, going to work Christmas parties, buying more presents, decorating a tree, wrapping presents, doing a huge supermarket shop to make sure you’ve got everything you could possibly need and not need to leave the house at all for the duration of the holiday – last year we got to simply ‘opt out’ of all of that. And I can’t tell you how much of a relief that was.
Now of course, in normal circumstances I love all of those things. I relish buying presents for people and adore decorating a tree and making our home look festive, and I love to bake as many mince pies as my oven can hold. But last year all of those things were coming at the same time as preparing for a wedding and you don’t need two guesses to work out which won. Having the pressure of Christmas – present buying and receiving, dinner cooking and house preparing – would have just been too much in the few weeks after the wedding. After a year of non stop organisation and filling every spare minute with wedding jobs, it was absolutely wonderful to let it all go and realise we had nothing to do. Nothing except prepare for our holiday and have a great time.
We received so many lovely gifts on our wedding day that Christmas seemed like an indulgence we didn’t deserve and so simply creating a no present rule amongst all of our friends and family, and promising we’d bring them all back something small from our trip meant that we didn’t have to worry about it.
While my twitter and Instagram feed was full of people putting up their trees and sharing their home decor ideas, for once I was totally removed from it all and instead was sharing posts about shopping for bikinis.
Instead of the usual madness in the few days run up to Christmas, we found ourselves munching on Dim Sum in local Hong Kong eateries or enjoying Chicken Satay fresh from the BBQ while dining on the beach, we visited the tallest building in Hong Kong three days before Christmas in humid and windy weather, slept in an airport on the eve of Christmas Eve and then spent Christmas Eve cycling around Gili Trawangan Island and swimming in the sea. It was the best run up to Christmas I’ve ever had.
You realise that a lot of people do it
Like I said, I think we sometimes forget that not everyone is celebrating their holiday in the same way we normally would at home. We were really surprised at the amount of different types of holiday makers we met, also choosing to spend Christmas (and the break around it) away from home. From backpackers on the final legs of their year long trips, to couples (young and old) enjoying a getaway to solo travellers and giant families with young kids, Christmas for them was just another time to holiday, and just as perfect a time to go away as summer was.
On Christmas Day, we got up early, donned our Santa hats and skyped home to wish our families a Happy Christmas, and at 7am Bali time while sat on a sun lounger by the beach there was another family with three young kids also doing the same nearby. We’d noticed them around the previous few days and the children really were just having the best time – from playing in the pool to jumping on bikes to eating and drinking non stop – I realised that for them, this would probably be one of those Christmas’s they’d remember fondly for the rest of their childhood, saying things like ‘Remember that time Santa came all the way to Bali to deliver our presents?’.
A celebration is a celebration
No matter where you are in the world, if there’s cause for a celebration you will find one. It might not be the typical type of celebration you’re used to but that very fact will make it even better. In an attempt to bring a little of our own traditions half way across the world, we’d packed a couple of Santa hats in our suitcases, mainly so that we could give everyone at home major FOMO by doing a Christmas selfie on the beach. It seems we weren’t alone in our thoughts as that day we saw more than a few red and white hats donning the beach and the bars. Although our part of the island was serene, quiet and totally tranquil, we only had to cycle around 15 minutes to reach the other side by the harbour which was much more party ready (in a tiny island sort of way of course). Bars and restaurants lined this part of the island, music played and people danced through the streets (some even dressed up) so if we had wanted a bit of a Christmas dinner and dance, we could have found it. Everyone we passed that day said happy Christmas to us and the Balinese locals offered us drinks and best wishes everywhere we went. Even though Christmas didn’t mean the same in Bali as it does at home, it was still a day for celebration for everyone on the island.
Christmas dinner (and all the trimmings) isn’t nearly as important
The things we place such huge importance on over at Christmas at home, simply weren’t important to us while away. We didn’t think twice about not having presents to open, and the sun was so gorgeous that morning we actually forgot to even wish each other a Happy Christmas after we’d called home, instead rushing to dive into the sea for a swim.
We’d often excitedly talked about what we might end up eating for Christmas dinner, in the months before our trip arrived, and we’d wondered what type of meal might await us – fresh fish, BBQ’d meats, noodles? As it turned out our Christmas lunch consisted of a few mouthfuls of calamari and a couple of cocktails, before an almighty storm saw an end to any sort of – sitting at a restaurant on the beach – activity and we swapped our meal time plan for drinking cocktails with the locals while sheltering behind a bar waiting for the storm to pass.
And you know what? I wouldn’t change it for the world. Christmas dinner wasn’t important, presents weren’t important, what we did that day wasn’t important, we just let things happen without worry and because of that we had a brilliant day.
Your families have just as great a time without you
I think a big worry for a lot of people when considering spending Christmas away from home is leaving family behind. Our families were all really supportive and encouraged us to have our first married Christmas alone but still there’s always that pang of ‘are we doing the right thing’ when you imagine them making plans without you.
Chances are though, they’ll have just as great a time without you (I know it’s a little disappointing isn’t it?). My parents decided to spend Christmas down South with my brother instead of in Scotland and there were reports of crazy parties, epic food feasts and late night movie marathons. While GB’s family shared photos of their entire brood getting together for games night, having a rare time without us (something that’s never happened when we’ve been there!). A little glimpse of Facebook to check all was OK was almost enough to give us some major FOMO so after that we made sure to get straight back into our sunshine filled bubble and not worry about what was going on back home.
Your Christmas Day will be like no other
I guarantee if you choose to spend Christmas abroad, the experience you have will be like no other Christmas you’ve ever had. Just the sheer mind boggling act of spending Christmas in the sunshine was enough to assure me of that, but no matter where you find yourself in the world you’ll be on a new adventure. And what better time to do it?
I’ll probably never again be able to say that I’ve spent Christmas in the middle of a tropical thunderstorm on a remote island on the other side of the world with a group of Balinese waiters attempting to stop their bar from flooding. That kind of experience is a once in a lifetime one.
Christmas is what you make it
Ultimately the biggest lesson in being away during such a traditional holiday, is that Christmas really is what you make it. It can be whatever you want it to be – from sun to snow, Turkey to fish, Fir trees to palm trees. As long as you’re with the right people (or person) you’ll have a wonderful time.
After a year out from all of the celebrations, I think GB and I will look forward to a traditional family Christmas even more when it rolls around again this year. But our stormy adventure in Bali might go down in history as our best yet. Have you ever spent Christmas abroad?