The idea of being away from home at Christmas is a big deal for many first time backpackers who have more often than not experienced the middleclass comforts of home-cooked turkey and stacks of presents under the tree. I wasn’t too worried about being away from my family, but Christmas is an important festival for me and I hoped to mark the occasion by doing something special.
I had ended up in Raglan, a small town 100 miles down the road from Hamilton, New Zealand. My plan was to be here for Christmas, but whereabouts I’d stay, well, I was clueless. The motley crew that I had bussed and hitched with to get here had disappeared into backpackerland whilst I went and had my first CouchSurfing experience with a belly dancer called Paul who had some good conversation and taught me about different styles of belly dancing, from traditional through to tribal fusion and the crazy contortions and carefully considered movements of Rachel Brice.
I managed to arrange accommodation for the week (with use of a surfboard thrown in) in exchange for doing some gardening and helping around the house, and my good fortune continued with the offer of a housesit over the Christmas weekend itself. Things were looking up! And I was glad to have a breather from the cost and chaos of NZ backpackers (Raglan town was full in any case, Christmas by the surf and sand was obviously a popular choice).
The prospect of a lonely Christmas started to fade, but I figured that even if I was alone and a little lonely, at least I would have a surfboard and the sea and that would be enough to complete my day.
So Christmas started with a night out in the Yot Club on Friday 23rd December. The theme was Sexy Christmas but barely a soul turned up in fancy dress. A few antlers were spotted about the place, a couple of Christmas hats, but it seemed that Raglan’s version of sexiness was simplicity. Some beers and smokes and a Jaeger Bomb later, and the party continued back at the house, but not before a little fight broke out in the pub garden. Kinda obligatory for an emotionally charged night out on the town, right?!
Christmas Eve meant a house switch for me: my own pad for a few days. But it also meant that it was time to concoct some party food. Raglan was a bustle of preparation and FourSquare, the local supermarket, heaved with people doing a quick last minute dash for beers and bread and other basics. Together with a new friend, I cleared out the vegetables and fruit sections and got to chopping kiwi and mango and nectarines for a fruit salad, an offering for the evening meal. We covered the salad with juices from freshly picked oranges, – sweet, sugary nectar from scruffy, little balls of sunshine. No plumped up shop stuff. Beautiful.
A few hours later I carefully carried the bowl of goodness and a bottle of wine and crashed a Latin American gathering. They were welcoming, a real international mix of family and friends and then me. Clearly unable to let go of my recent trip to South America, I was back in the swing of being surrounded by Spanish and feasting on beautifully made tamales and tasty frijoles and other great food.
The Buena Vista Social Club played in the background and people talked about dancing; stockings hung by the fireplace and a little tree lit up the corner of the room. It was definitely the most Christmasy I had felt since arriving into the country. Throughout the evening we supped on wine and sipped shots of Mezcal. Nothing too hectic. We ate dessert, a homemade ice-cream cake drizzled in a rich chocolate sauce, complimented by cream topped meringues, an indulgence absolutely suited to a hot Christmastime.
Not a typical New Zealand Christmas, I’m guessing, but a beautiful experience nonetheless. A little out on the fringes, I still felt welcomed but my mind drifted to my own family and those close to me and how they would be celebrating Christmas, and as much as I tried to be in the moment and enjoy the ‘here and now’, I felt that little pull. I guess that Christmas does that you, right? So I was part of something, yet still not.
Christmas day started late. I had an amazing sleep in. As I walked through Raglan, the town itself was still, all shops shut. The waterfront, however, buzzed with activity; kids jumping in the water, people going for a Christmas kayak, families picnicking on grassy patches.
Some more food preparation began, this time a Mexican lentil soup and some salsa style dip. It was an unusual Christmas dinner, served out on the veranda in the shade of the sun, but why stick with the usual?
And then I turned down an invite to join a couple of others for the afternoon and evening. Christmas is usually so hectic and family focused, and I thought, if I’m away from all that and doing it alone, let’s do it alone. I didn’t feel like being social. So I wandered down to a secluded spot at the end of the boardwalk and wrote Christmas messages in the sand and read my book and did some writing.
And I watched the world go by. I saw families with shrieking, happy children running around all over the place; and couples paddling in the water, squelching the mud between their toes; and fathers and sons out collecting cockles; and fancy speed boats passing by; and kids splashing around in the water with friends, ducking in and out, bombing each other.
And then I saw one teenage figure sitting on a bench overlooking the water, hood pulled up so it was impossible to identify whether they were male or female. Christmas, it reminded me, isn’t a happy occasion for all. And I felt for this character and hoped that future Christmases would throw up some more hope.
So, how was a solo Christmas? It wasn’t so bad really. I had company when I wanted it, I had the sea on my doorstep and the sun shone down on me all day long. For me, a Brit, it did feel strange not to have the cold and the dark nights and the Christmas lights twinkling all over the place, but I enjoyed observing the differences between an English and a Kiwi Christmas; the introverted family occasion all cosied up and huddled around trees and fires versus the outgoing ‘let’s-enjoy-the-summertime-and-get-the-hell-out-of-the-house’. All a good experience. Now where the hell are my presents?!