As an overseas student, there are a few options of how to spend the Christmas holiday: traveling, going home or preparing for exams. If you don’t want a complicated and expensive trip, or don’t feel like studying, there is another option you can try — joining a host family. The whole process is quite simple, and free of charge. There are several organizations running the program for both the Christmas and Easter holidays. You only need to register online and fill the form within half an hour to validate your identity. The organization will coordinate the host family for you and then they will contact you via email.
I visited a host family in the Easter holiday during my masters. It was such a sweet experience and I decided to revisit them for three days this Christmas. My host, Jo, is a kind and respectful lady. She is a retired teacher devoted her whole working life to the primary education, firstly in London and then overseas. She now lives with her dog, Zac, in Hartfield, South Sussex. Jo has a sister, Susan, lives in another village a few miles away, with a very old boxer, Maggie. They have both hosted students for eight years, and we all spent this Christmas together.
Hartfield, given the name by wild deer lives there, is a small village of about 1,000 houses, but only 35 miles from London. It is on the edge of Ashdown Forest, which is designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Interestingly, the famous Winnie-the-Pooh stories are set there. You will find the ‘pooh bridge’ here as described in your childhood bedtime book. In my Easter holiday visit, I walked into the forest carpeted by beautiful bluebells, and found many lovely letters and gifts from kids to Winnie in tree holes along the way.
Two host students (One was Susan’s) and I arrived at East Grinstead train station the day before Christmas. Jo and Susan welcomed us there and drove us to her house. When we pulled into the front yard, Zac welcomed us with his loud barking. He is a handsome black Labrador, energetic but surprisingly polite, like a gentleman. Jo’s village is quite old and some of the cottages date back to the 14th and 15th centuries. Jo’s house is a converted coach house that is about 130 years old. Most recently it was the Village Post Office, but this closed in 1999. She renovated and furnished it over the years to bring its fairy-tale look to the modern day. It is a modern two-floor house, near the endless meadows. Jo was very considerate — she showed each of us the bedrooms upstairs first. I noticed that paintings hung on the walls, most of which were Zac’s portraits at different ages, as well as various souvenirs from Jo’s legendary overseas life. There is a spacious dining room with a balcony, for our Christmas feast and any other important occasions. Next to it is a living room, where we exchanged our gifts. Zac was always there, sat on the sofa and watching us like a king — it is his bedroom.
Christmas is all about eating. Jo and Susan are not only masters in cooking but showed us ‘the food etiquette’. They arranged everything so neatly – I felt like watching a performance, and that totally dismissed my negative opinion about British food. On Christmas day, our main cuisine wass a 14lb turkey from the local butcher, with home-made bread sauce. The turkey was stuffed with sausage meat, lamb fat and sage mixture, in case the meat got too dry. It was gigantic. I worried if it was too much for the five of us, but Jo told me the tradition is to eat the leftovers from your Christmas feast on the 26th. Us students mainly helped prepare the vegetables. Susan and her student Maggie arrived in the afternoon. They brought us sweets, fruits and special dessert Susan made, a large Christmas pudding. It looked like an upside-down clay flower pot (but turned out to be really nice).
Jo’s house became crowded with all the visitors, and there was a festive feeling in the air. We exchanged gifts first, and all of us, even the dogs, received their own one. I received from Jo a cute dog mug and chocolates, and I gave Jo a wool hat for walks in the winter. We then prepared for the evening meal. We put the beautiful tableware on the table, lit red candles, and dished out food. The turkey was sliced into the dark meat (legs) and white meat (breast), served together with cold ham.
The dinner started with Christmas crackers, toasts and blessings. The food was really delicious. I love the dark meat and parsnip. Sometimes we laughed because of Susan’s hilarious jokes, and the dogs’ naughty behaviors (Perhaps because they didn’t get any feast). The feast culminated when Jo walked in with a Christmas pudding in the blue flame. She poured Brandy around the pudding and sparked a fire, as this is one of the Christmas traditions. In the dark with only flame burning, we sang ‘We wished you Merry Christmas’ together.
Our time there went by very quickly and was mostly taken up with ‘family’ events. We had a Boxing day walk on the nearby hills, which are covered by gorse bush and heathers. The path was very muddy but the whole journey was very pleasant. Zac ran euphorically — chewed branches and greeted old friends. During the afternoon, we played poker and board games. We even had a mass in a local church on Christmas night. Moon and stars brightly guiding the way, the three of us walked in silence. Although I don’t believe in any religion, I felt peaceful and happy on the way back.
I deeply thank Jo and Susan for this wonderful Christmas. There was no loneliness, and all the time I felt I was treated as a family member. I put aside my electronic devices and listened to their stories, about their neighbors, bridge games and gardening. If you are interested in experience a local village life out of hustle and bustle, you can try to apply, and wait for the surprise.
Image Credit: Yifu Ding