The American holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas is my favorite time of year. This is mostly because of heartwarming traditions, fun festivities, my birthday, loving family and friends, and the optimistic spirit that seems to permeate the atmosphere. If you don’t celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving you can still feel the change in the air; you can feel other people’s happiness and see the joy in children’s faces.
Even in Thailand, a Buddhist country, I’m experiencing this special holiday. Everywhere I look there are decorations, trees, lights, signs for New Year’s/Christmas, and carols playing in stores. My school is decorated with trees, inflatable Santa’s and other items, and this morning they sang Christmas carols and held a Christmas assembly. (Check out displays from my school and Bangkok, below.)
Celebrating holidays in a foreign country can be difficult. Traditions are different and there is a strong feeling of nostalgia and homesickness that comes from being away from family and close friends. This is my first holiday season without my family and it is a little harder than I would have thought. It’s also hard adjusting to a different climate. Being from New England I am used to the more northern, winter-like weather. In Thailand the temperature has averaged 80+ degrees Fahrenheit since I’ve been here, making me really miss that cold nip in the air which, for me, heralds the arrival of the Christmas season.
I am writing this and wishing for a cup of hot chocolate, while watching the snow fall and smelling Christmas cookies baking in the oven. Yet, I am content, having settled for a cup of coffee and watching the lake move in the direction the wind blows. It’s a lovely sight, just not the same scenario I’m used to. Instead of traditional baking scents, I smell Thai foods and desserts. They may not be my mom’s cookies, but they still smell delicious. I also must admit that I am happy not to shovel, or to be on jammed on highways packed with other travelers. Fortunately, our temperatures have recently dropped so it’s much cooler, and the spirit is still alive here between the decorations, the songs in the stores, and the happiness people share. That’s what really matters.
As there is no holiday in Thailand between the beginning of November and Christmas, Christmas music began playing very early in November. Some places even had their decorations up and for sale. It was strange hearing those familiar tunes that early, especially as I didn’t expect to see much of a Christmas celebration here. Fortunately, most stores didn’t start playing the music constantly until December; then I heard it in almost every store I went to.
When December 1st came around all of the stores began putting up decorations. Most had a theme of some kind, and many included trees, lights, Santa’s, bears, and “Happy New Year” signs. Music is played constantly in some main stores, such as malls, food stores, and Starbucks. The atmosphere is abuzz with good cheer and people are enchanted by the decorations, and I am excited for the spirit of it all (the movies, songs, smells of cookies). I am able to watch movies and listen to the songs, but unfortunately I can’t make cookies: a favorite holiday pastime. If I had the equipment, I would make so many cookies!
My birthday falls in December and celebrating this milestone in Thailand was more wonderful than I could have imagined. Filled with love and new people in my life who care about me, the day very special. My department at school brought lunch for everyone, including a cake, sang “Happy Birthday,” and gave me lovely presents. I was beyond shocked by how much there was and how much love the department had for someone who just started a month ago. Some students even brought me dessert as a birthday gift! I felt so lucky to be in a school that cares so much. I have always wanted to work in a place that makes people feel special on their birthdays and this school did all of that and much more. They made me feel welcomed and part of the team.
That night some friends and I went to a local bar to celebrate. In the U.S. going to a bar with friends on a birthday usually results in them buying the person a drink or two. In Thailand, while some friends brought drinks, the biggest surprise was that people bought me cake, and the whole bar sang to me and ate the cake! It was wonderful and I never felt so blessed on a birthday before. Because I was away from home it felt even better to know I was cared for and not alone. I had a great time and will cherish the memory.
Of course, being in a new land during these family-oriented holidays, and during a birthday, can be difficult. I have learned to cope by sharing the traditions and joys of these celebrations with my students, spending time with new friends, traveling, and enjoying myself. I have gone to Chiang Rai, Pattaya, and visited new sites in Bangkok with friends. I often go to the gym to work out, hang out with friends I have made in the village for drinks or dinner, or go to the movies with co-workers (Star Wars was amazing! I give it a 10 out of 10).
Having things planned in advance, or even last minute pop-ups, have helped overcome the feelings of being homesick because I am keeping busy, seeing people, taking time to relax, and having adventures. In fact, the next two weekends will be full of travel and holiday fun with friends – going to see Harry Potter exhibits and Chiang Mai.
To date, I’ve been enjoying this holiday season and I know it will be one I’ll never forget.
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