Finding my place in the holiday season

A former ‘Christmas orphan’ appreciates celebrating with family

As I look out of the bedroom window to rolling hills and snow-capped mountains on the horizon, I reminisced about all the different window views I’ve had on the last day of every year since I left Malaysia in 2004.

There was the snow-covered village in the French Pyrenees, the view of Pentonville Road from my box room in my first year in London, a quiet Polish cul-de-sac, the Norwegian coast in blue twilight during polar nights and the top of Parliament Hill overlooking all of London’s glory. So I should be used to spending time away from home by now.

But in spite of the adventure and anticipation of being in a new place, there is still no place like home with my family in Kuala Lumpur.

Coinciding with the end-of-year holidays is Britain’s most popular festivity — Christmas, a time when the whole country comes to a standstill and families convene to spend time together, enjoy a delicious roast dinner, exchange presents and, if they are lucky, enjoy a walk in the snow.

Before I got married, this time of the year would fill me with a sense of dread from not knowing where to go.

If I had not booked a flight to go back to my family, I would be a “Christmas orphan,” and the thought of roaming around the decorated streets on my own filled me with sadness.

The reality is, every year many people are lonely and for anyone new to the city, all the laughter and partying around them makes them even more sad.

I have a lot of respect for people who invite friends who are alone over Christmas into their homes and share with them the true spirit of this holiday season.

Having spent Christmas with different families in the last decade, it has not escaped me that there is a culture of abundance where presents are concerned. As far as Christmas goes in Malaysia, I have not done much more than giving the odd (small) present to a friend.

So, you can imagine the shock when I attended my first Christmas with an English family.

I was showered with more than five presents from just one giver in exchange for one thing I had bought for them.

I then spent the next Christmas with my best friend’s family and the trend did not change as I was showered with numerous gifts of makeup, perfume, furry slippers and other girly things from her parents, who both did their best to make me feel welcome. And because I was receiving all these presents, I felt as though I had to match what they had given me.

Christmas had turned me into a fanatic consumer, not to mention a very broke one thereafter.

It was not until I got involved with my husband that things really took a turn for the better.

He comes from a family who believe that the real meaning of Christmas has been thwarted and turned into obligatory consumerism.

We still buy each other presents, but we try to concentrate on thoughtful giving and giving what will add value to people’s households.

So instead of giving multiple presents that will fill someone with delight for 10 seconds and then be stowed away to the back of the cupboard, I try to think of something that is necessary, which will either keep them warm over winter, replace something that has worn out, or that they can use daily.

As the year comes to an end and a New Year begins, I will soon be returning to Malaysia to the biggest festivity that my family celebrates — Chinese New Year.

This is the first time I am going home for the celebration in 10 years. I wonder if dreading questions of when I would marry and procreate from well-meaning aunties and uncles had put me off all these years.

Although I’ve experienced eating alone on Lunar New Year, I have been lucky enough to have a group of Malaysian friends in London to spend most Chinese New Years with over these years in the UK.

We would often head to Chinatown to watch the lion dance and eat char koay teow and pandan cake to stave off feelings of homesickness.

Memories of the last few Chinese New Years are filled by big dinners at a dear friend’s home where she cooked for over 20 people, as well as the occasional attempt by my (English) husband at preparing a Chinese meal of fried rice, sesame chicken, fortune cookie, prawn crackers and egg tart.

There’s something to be said about spending these holiday seasons with your nearest and dearest.

At the end of the day, when the last dish has been polished off and the cutleries are put away, it is the bond within our family and friends, and our full bellies that we nourish.

This year, I can finally say to my family on the first day of Chinese New Year, that the family that eats together stays together.