This year I’ll be celebrating my 11th Christmas on this beautiful island and my main goal for this holiday season is to make the perfect sand-snowman. I can assure you that this is a task far more difficult than Pinterest or Instagram would have you believe. Last year’s attempt involved; five sun kissed children, four explicit swear words, three murdered beach balls, two laughing adults and a cooler of Balashi next to a beach towel.
Our final attempt was approximately 12 inches tall, misshapen and dwarfed by a giant carrot nose. My motley crew of sandy elves christened our sand-woman Olivia and I got a picture of her and the kids just as the sun was slipping behind the azure waters of Arashi Beach. The picture is perfect (once I explain why we put a wool scarf on a sand blob) but it has nothing on my memories of that day.
This is a far cry from the first Christmas I ever spent on the island. I was a tourist then, and a little reluctant to spend the holidays away from my home in New Jersey. For me, Christmas meant a whirlwind of activity: shopping, decorating, cookie baking and cooking my signature dish for Christmas Eve dinner at my Aunt’s house. All of my Christmas traditions kept me incredibly busy, and more than a little stressed out, but it was all I knew. When my Father suggested a Christmas vacation on a tropical island I was more than a little reluctant.
It turned out to be an awesome vacation, but lying on the beach, reading a murder mystery and sipping Aruba Ariba’s never really put me in a Fa-la-la-la frame of mind. There was something intrinsically wrong with slathering on sunscreen instead of bundling up against the snow. I vowed then that I’d never leave home for the holidays again.
Ironically, six years later I was celebrating Christmas in Aruba again, because it had become my home. That second Christmas was harder for me than the first. I was completely lost without my comforting Christmas traditions and way too hot to bake cookies. As much as I love palm trees, they are not pine trees and I noticed right away that you can’t string fairy lights on them unless you are as nimble as a spider monkey or have a friend with a cherry picker. I was homesick, and the more I tried to make Christmas the way I’d always celebrated it the more sure I became that Christmas on the island would never really feel like Christmas at all.
The following year my son was 6 months old at Christmas time and I remember feeling sad at the start of the holiday season because I couldn’t give him the Christmases that I’d enjoyed in the States. However, I had friends and family on the island by that point and I decided to immerse myself in the local traditions. I drank Ponchi Crema and visited my son’s father’s family. I heard an orkle for the first time and marvelled at the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. For the first time, I realized – with my heart – a lesson that I’d been taught many times but had somehow never really absorbed: Christmas is far more than just presents and baubles and snow.
The holidays are truly what they make them. That realization spurred me on to make the holidays as amazing for my child as it always had been for me. I had to find a path of my own and in doing so I’ve learned to appreciate the end of the year in a way I never had before.
Gone are the evenings of rushing around in the bitter cold trying to scratch everyone off my shopping list as fast as I can, choosing gifts that I’d be paying for well into the New Year. Gone are the days of making hundreds of cookies in assembly line fashion the weekend before Christmas, and waking up early on Christmas Eve to slave in the kitchen (ok, fine…wait in line for the rolls). Gone are the hours of sitting in holiday traffic and getting all stressed out in an attempt to achieve the ‘perfect’ Christmas.
Here on the island, the holidays (like many things) are so much easier. It’s truly about the thought, not the gift. It’s about spending time with the ones you love, having a little extra time to indulge in one more drink at Oma and Opa’s house, surrounded by your favorite people. It’s about friendship, family music and laughter. And most importantly, it’s about finding peace as another year passes by.
This time of year always makes me a little nostalgic for snow and mistletoe, but the traditions I’m cultivating now will be my son’s holiday legacy. I have no doubt that when he’s an adult, in his favorite Christmas memories he’ll be wearing a Santa hat and building snowmen in the sand.
[originally published in H&H magazine]