Spending my first Holiday Season (thousands of miles) away from home, and without central heating.
I’m gonna be honest and say that I’ve been rather nervous about spending Christmastime away from home. Halloween was difficult (because it’s my favorite holiday, they don’t really celebrate it here, and I don’t have WiFi at my house so I couldn’t binge all of The Simpsons Treehouse of Horrors), Thanksgiving was a bit more difficult (rather than the standard American Thanksgiving meal, I enjoyed a nice chicken lung soup for dinner (this was sarcasm. I do not enjoy eating chicken lung soup)), and I knew that Christmas would inevitably be even more difficult.
I never really thought of Christmas as being a big deal for me and my family; we didn’t host some elaborate Christmas feast, meet up with all of our extended family, or have any crazy traditions. However, being away from home has made me realize that we had so many little traditions that I didn’t even notice were actual ‘traditions.’ There were certain movies and TV specials we’d always watch leading up to Christmas, songs we’d listen to, and even a specific song we listened to while decorating the Christmas tree at the house. We’d always go to church on Christmas Eve and participate in some way (musically, of course), eat our traditionally untraditional dinner of lasagna, and my brother, sister and I would open the gifts from each other (which usually ended up being my favorite of the gifts). So many little things truly add up. And, of course, there’s the big thing: my siblings and I all coming together. Super cheesy, but my siblings are my best friends, and since we’re all spread out, any time spent together is extra good. My parents are cool too, I guess (this is obviously an understatement. I love y’all so much).
But for the next 2 years, I’m 6,000 miles away from the comfort of the many small Christmas traditions and the big presence of being surrounded by family.
A bit dramatic, but I kinda assumed my Christmas season here would be a little cold. Cold because it’s legitimately very cold outside (I’m not in Texas anymore!), but also because I’m in a predominantly Muslim country surrounded by language and cultural barriers and complete strangers.
That mindset was an admitted bummer on my part, but I guess it was a blessing in disguise because it set my expectations unbelievably low. Silver linings.
What I hadn’t taken into account with my minimalist mindset was that I would be placed with an unbelievably loving and thoughtful host family. And that regardless of any difference of religious orientation, they would completely embrace me and want to make me feel welcome.
It’s not even Christmas yet and I’ve already experienced so much “holiday cheer” from my family… starting as early as December 2nd.
*harp strumming to signal a flashback*
My mom, 2 of my sisters and I, had just gotten back to the house after spending several hours at some extended family member’s house for the afternoon. I had just laid down in bed for a quick rest when my 12 year old sister knocked on my door. She wanted some tape that they kept on top of my wardrobe. She then proceeded to drag a chair in, stand on it, retrieve the tape, and then invite me into the living room as she climbed down with the tape. I assumed she just wanted me to hang out with the family, so I said I’d be out in a minute. I finished my episode on Netflix and went out to the living room, being greeted, surprisingly, by all my siblings gathered around a small Christmas tree, decorating it with lights. They cheered when I came out. We then went into the hallway and set up the small tree in one of the potted plants, taping it to the plant that was already in the pot (hysterical). One of my sisters plugged it the lights and all of my siblings took turns cheering, hugging me, and asking me if I liked it. I’m 100% positive they know Americans love Christmas, and since I’m American, I must love Christmas too (completely accurate). I thought that was very sweet and thoughtful, but then they said they had a big tree.
And with that promise, they went up to the attic to get the box down, and we put up the big tree. It was clearly old, missing branches, and pretty sparse, but I was trying so hard not to cry. All of my siblings kept hugging me and were so excited for me, handing me all the ornaments to put up. They took something like 50 pictures of me unfolding branches and circled around the tree asking if I liked it (I said I loved it, of course). We finished decorating it and everyone cheered. It put A Charlie Brown Christmas to shame.
My family very well may put the tree up every year, but considering they were unsure of when Christmas actually was (I’m pretty sure they’re still convinced it’s the 24th), I kind of get the feeling that might not be the case.
Since then, they’ve mentioned Christmas multiple times, for me, and pointed out Christmas stuff on TV, for me.
Another particularly Christmas-y event happened yesterday, on December 16th. I got a knock on my door in the afternoon (I had been hiding away watching Netflix under my covers and had heard some extended family come over) and was greeted by a bright light from a phone recording a video, all my siblings and some of my cousins from my mom’s side, and my 3 year old host brother (whom I share a birthday with) dressed up as Santa (Babadimir in Shqip). He proceeded to say: ‘Urime Krishtlindje (Merry Christmas)’ and handed me a chocolate bar. When I bent down to give him a hug, he pulled his beard down to give me a kiss. Absolutely precious. Remember those old ‘Kodak Moment’ commercials? This was one of those sickeningly cute Kodak moments.
Later that afternoon, I was whisked away to an extended family member’s house (this is a reoccurring theme of my service). My mom, oldest sister and I saw that they had a nicely lit and decorated tree, and my mom asked me, in Albanian, if I wanted our tree back at the house to look more like that. I said it was fine as it was, but I think she wanted me to say yes, so I did. Upon returning to our house, my previous “yes” prompted my 17 year old sister to take all the decorations off our tree, and ask me to completely redecorate it. So I did. It was my first time completely decorating a tree, and I think I did a decent job. My sister kept handing me strands of lights, tinsel, ribbon, and ornaments. My siblings all watched in awe as I decorated it. They all thanked me and I thanked them for giving me the opportunity. We pushed it back into the corner, and my sister told me it looked much better than our uncle’s tree. I think so, too.
The next morning (today), my mom went into town to do some grocery shopping and picked up Santa outfits for the 5 year old twins to join in on the cuteness. Super precious. The pictures don’t particularly prove it, but I promise that they love me!
Christmas is still several days away, but I’m already feeling incredibly blessed spending it with my family here in Kosovo this year. My time with them has just continuously proven that you don’t need language to communicate love.