First Christmas in the Country and (not) the City

You know it’s that time of the year when Christmas comes a’hollerin’ with its fervent high-street sales and velvet caroling vocals. While the adamantly pious few may still maintain that ‘tis the season to commemorate Christ’s birth, most of us 21st century denizens would beg to differ, as we shop till we drop and justify our annual profligacy by deluding ourselves that it is an ‘annual one-off’ in a season to be jolly (despite such joy – not to mention, bank credit – often being stretched to hedonistic proportions). Celebrating festivity in a manner which completely belies the ascetic undertones of Jesus’ nativity, we gorge on bargain buffets and laden ourselves with equally bloated bags, all the while losing sight of what Christmas is really about – and let’s not kid ourselves by denying that we have long relegated this question to the periphery of our materially-entrenched minds. After investing all our energy in gift-wrapping and gourmet planning, bringing up this quasi-philosophical burning question may seem like something that only a party pooper would do, but once the festive fervour fizzles away, what can remain is nothing more than the awareness of what all that effort was worth.

To shame, I have spent 18 years of late December in precisely such a fashion, for which my faithful allegiance to that concrete jungle called Hong Kong must be to blame.  Harking from an Amazon of skyscrapers and malls galore, I have been trained by my natural habitat to associate the capital C in ‘Christmas’ with the lucrative C in ‘consumerism’, and in hindsight, Christmas has always been my favourite holiday mainly because it is the only one that legitimises indulgent consumption. But anyway, upon entering into my 19th year of life and penultimate year at university, I stumbled upon a Eurekaesque moment, and the knowledge that it was either now or never for me to spend a Christmas at once removed from home and unplagued by worries of an impending final exam triggered my decision to stay. At that moment, I literally did not care if it meant stuffing my own stocking in solitude while re-reading Troilus’ sissy rant on Christmas Eve and microwaving Tesco value mince pies in a grim college dorm room with absolutely zero company in Oxford. It was final: British Airways will not be getting their gift of my plane ticket this year and that was that.

As chance would have it though, when I confided this plan of mine to my friend at the start of Michaelmas, she was appalled that I should commit such a festive folly as spending this jolly season alone, and next thing I knew I had secured myself an honoured place in her beautiful Tisbury cottage come December. Oh imagine my excitement at the prospect of experiencing countryside life for the first time ever, and during Christmas as well! Yet as I began to gauge the differences between her role as a sister amongst 10 siblings and mine as an only daughter in a nuclear household; rural Tisbury and metropolitan Hong Kong, the contrast was so overwhelming that at one point I questioned whether or not it would be a good idea to go after all. Prior to my departure, an onslaught of anxious concerns besieged my socially awkward self: What if her family finds me weird? Is it appropriate for an outsider to impose her presence upon such a family-oriented event? Nonetheless, the curious cat in me eventually ushered away these thoughts, and hoping to find out what celebrating Christmas the traditional Brit way is like with a family almost three times bigger than my own, I set off Wiltshire-bound with my Secret Santa presents, an analog camera and an adventurous spirit. Bearing in mind how absolutely urban my existence has been up until coming to Oxford (and for the last time: no, Oxford is not… a city), what follows should sound less threadbare than it would without my caveat, but little did I know that I was about to receive both an experience and an education of a lifetime. And while I did indeed take away my share of presents, photos and a hell of an adventure from this visit, Santa’s real gift to me turned out to be the chance of replacing self-indulgence with self-discovery.

Upon stepping foot into the cottage, I was immediately struck by how novel everything seemed to me. It was ‘novel’ not in a sense of “This is a Huxleyan alter-world”, but in terms of the ambiance of warmth that distinguishes a cozy brick-built cottage from a cold concrete apartment. Logs of wood inflamed lit up the old-fashioned hearth, and before I could give my host an arrival embrace her siblings trumped me in the hugging stakes by introducing themselves while peeling home-grown parsnips at an impressive speed. Having already carried out a stalk-fest on every possible family member with that socialising godsend called Facebook, I nonetheless restrained my allusive urge to bring in casual references of (insert sibling’s name)’s life as conveniently presented on his/her timeline when we sat down at the table. My attempts at demonstrating my (limited) domestic utility were to no avail, both due to the family’s incredible hospitality and my blundering ineptitude in what is to me virtually uncharted territory back home (i.e. the kitchen). I soon acquainted myself with the entire household, after which the youngest invited me to partake in her decorating endeavours, and as we draped sparkly tinsels and hung up glassy baubles, I began to immerse myself into my new surroundings and savour the experience of preparing for Christmas with this big warm family. Be it recreating Delia Smith’s light Christmas pudding with my friend and watching everyone fight over it for seconds, going into the neighbouring woods to collect holly and ivy for authentic staircase decorations (none of that synthetic rubbish), folding paper napkins into water lilies or even simply listening to the youngest gush on about how exciting the idea of cracking a “rather large Christmas Chocolate Bomb” is to her, I felt festivity exuding at every turn of my Christmas Day ‘excursion’. As if the buzz of collaborative festive preparation was not enough of a thrill for cocooned urban me, I also had the opportunity of exploring the nearby grounds, among which the bucolic splendour of the Old Wardour Castle and its idyllic parkland proved a highlight of my journey. At one point, the sylvan delight was so overwhelming that I broke out in tuneless song with Wordsworthian zeal, convinced that I was a latter-day Maria von Trapp while completely disregarding the ill-suppressed sniggers of my otherwise tolerant companions. But here it was, my Christmas present in full glory: it was neither about possession nor materiality, but the visceral sense of being; simply existing, living in a moment that infuses you with joy inexplicable.

Yet the thought of purely enjoying myself without over-analysing the situation wouldn’t possibly do justice to my identity as an Englisher (i.e. a person whose degree is basically about inconsequential overthinking and pushing yourself to the brink of an existential crisis before resorting to vodka as the ultimate remedy), so after enjoying that whirlwind of fuzzy delight, I retreated back into my psychological cavern and started mulling over my experience. What was it that made my 19th Christmas so special compared to the others? Sure, I was doing more chopping than shopping and was surrounded more often by birches than bricks. But superficial differences as such are no material for a life-changing epiphany, and while I concede that there may be a tinge of hyperbole in that statement, I can honestly say that spending my first non-metropolitan Christmas has made me realise just how materialistic the nature of my festive joy has always been. At home, I would take the day’s schedule of shopping with parents, helping my mom out, entertaining my relatives and unwrapping presents as a mandatory agenda that I’d materialise mechanically and mindlessly, without giving so much as a minute’s thought to the actual point of doing it all. By this point, some of you may find my reflective escapade a bit too sentimental and inflated to be credible, but if you do find it incredulous, chances are that you’ve never actually spent a Christmas different from your standard run-of-the-mill celebrations. Then again, had it not been for a combination of circumstances and my less-than-filial whim of a decision to not go home for the holidays, I would probably be reading this with the same sort of wary scepticism I’m pre-empting right here. As per usual, irony abounds in life, and trite as this may sound, spending the last days of 2013 with my friend’s family has only made me appreciate my own family that much more – my family which I have always taken for granted, especially as a single child who never had to vie for any attention or appreciation before the love would just come showering down in ‘annoying’ abundance.

But I’ll stop here, lest my contemplative tract starts reeking of effusive didacticism. After all, I may just have gone a tad bit overboard with the holiday vino, and we’ve all spewed personal manifestos, weird confessions and sentimental crap after downing that extra bottle of wine. Bloody alcohol and hormones – if only Father Santa would deal with them, now that would be the ultimate present. For everyone, in country and city alike.


PHOTO/Jennifer Chan