The globetrotting family of the US ambassador to Malaysia celebrates Christmas with all their traditions, wherever they are.
’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
SO begins the classic poem, ’Twas The Night Before Christmas, which in its entirety, captures the innocent wonder of a child anticipating the arrival of St Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) as well as the magical wonder of Christmas itself.
It is also a poem that means a lot to the family of United States Ambassador to Malaysia Datuk Paul W. Jones, whose family has a tradition of reading the poem aloud on Christmas eve, a ritual that was started by his wife Catherine.
“Reading ’Twas The Night Before Christmas with the family is probably my favourite part of Christmas as a child. My father used to read it to us without fail for years, and it would make us very excited about Santa coming!” she recalled. “No matter what country we were in or where we were living, if it was Christmas, we would read that poem. I remember once we spent Christmas in a hotel, but we still read that poem together, and it felt like Christmas to us. Even today, every time I hear that poem, I can visualise different Christmas scenarios in all the different houses that I’ve lived in.”
If you didn’t already know from all the countless Christmas movies and TV specials Hollywood churns out each year, Christmas is a big deal in the United States. It is a time to decorate your Christmas trees, dust off the Christmas lights and decorate the home, and above all else, a time to get all your friends and family together to celebrate the holidays.
Then there is the original reason Christmas is celebrated in the first place – to commemorate the birth of Christ.
“The religious aspect of the holiday should not be forgotten – it’s a time to celebrate in terms of religious belief,” said Catherine. “But it’s also become more than just that – Christmas for us has become a very family-centred holiday, and a time for giving and sharing.”
Different families celebrate Christmas in different ways across the United States, and most families would have their own little traditions and habits when it comes to the holiday.
“When I think about Christmas, it’s always the anticipation that something magical is going to happen. And you build that anticipation with the decorations and music and so on,” said Jones, adding that one of things he remembers most about Christmas as a child is how the Christmas stocking would magically appear full of gifts on his doorknob on Christmas morning.
“I later found out that the reason for that is so my parents wouldn’t have to wake up as early as the kids!” he said, laughing. “We were not allowed to go downstairs to open our presents first, so we had to just open the stockings first! There would be little gifts in it, chocolates, tangerines ... and we’d all eat and talk in our rooms while waiting for our mum to get up.”
The daughter of an American diplomat and now the wife to the US Ambassador to Malaysia (who had previously served in the Philippines, Austria, Macedonia and Russia), Catherine has been travelling around the world all her life.
“I was born in India. My father was a diplomat so I’ve been on the road most of my life,” she said. “Our daughter Allie is 16, and our son Hale is 13, and they’ve been out of the US for most of their lives. For us, Christmas is wherever we are.”
The family’s globetrotting life is reflected in the Christmas decorations in their house. Besides the usual Christmas trees, garlands and wreaths, there are also little touches and details that incorporate the different cultures that they have been exposed to. For example, the Russian Ded Moroz (“Grandfather Frost”, the Russian version of Santa) doll next to the Christmas tree, a straw hat-wearing Santa doll from the Philippines, and wonderfully unique ornaments from all over the world hanging on the family Christmas tree, including a cool little lobster from the American city of Newport, Rhode Island, some cute Russian dolls, hand-painted egg shells from Austria, a hibiscus and wau bulan (from Malaysia, of course), and even a bunch of mini cooking utensils to reflect Catherine’s love for cooking.
“The tree holds so many wonderful memories of different places we’ve been to. And yes, we’ve been lugging it around everywhere we go!” said Jones. This will be their third Christmas in Malaysia, and it is set to be their biggest one yet, as not only will their family be jetting in from the States, but they will also be hosting an event called the Artistry of Spices on Jan 3, in which they will have three chefs doing cooking demos for invited guests, and talking about how spices are used in Indian, Malay and Chinese food.
“This will be our biggest Christmas in three years!” Catherine exclaimed. “In the past few years, it’s been quite small, only about six to eight people. Paul’s mother is flying down from New York, and his sister and her family are flying over as well.”
Nevertheless, celebrating Christmas outside of the US still required a mental adjustment of sorts.
“It’s hard celebrating Christmas in the tropics! I miss the snow, and picking out my own tree in the Christmas tree lot ... and there’s no chimney for us to hang our Christmas stockings!” Catherine said with a laugh.
“So, we’ve had to create our own Christmas atmosphere, and that’s done by holding fast to your traditions.”
She was surprised at first that a pre-dominantly Muslim country such as Malaysia would have such a Christmassy environment, especially in the malls. “I was surprised at first, that Christmas is also such a clear part of the country’s celebrations. But now I’ve been here a while, I’ve seen that this is a country that embraces all cultures and religions,” she said.
“It’s actually quite easy to get into the Christmas mood here, especially with all the malls decorated for Christmas!”
While Catherine does reckon it is sad that Christmas has become so commercialised sometimes, it is the little things and fond memories of celebrating the holiday with family that makes it all worthwhile.
“Everyone is so busy these days that it is harder for us to put aside everything and get together,” she mused. “But everyone plans their schedule around Christmas. Sometimes, you really do need an excuse like that to get the family together.”
Some of Catherine’s fondest memories of the holiday are from when she was a kid, thanks to her parents’ efforts to make every Christmas memorable for the family.
“Christmas is always extra special when you are a kid. When we were kids, my father would throw stones on the roof at night so we’d think it was the reindeer landing!” she remembered fondly. “Then in the morning, my parents would just scatter the toys all over the house, so it really felt like you were walking into Santa’s workshop!
“My parents were always going the extra mile to make it special for us kids, and I do that for ours as well. When you’re a child, standing there looking at that tall, magically lit Christmas tree ... it’s just such a wonderful memory. And then there’s the reading of ’Twas The Night Before Christmas ... these are my favourite Christmas memories, and they are the sort I want my own kids to have as well,” she concluded.
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