By Hannah Silverman
Last Christmas department store John Lewis pumped a lot of millions into an advertising narrative called ‘The Bear and the Hare‘. It was about a hibernating bear who, if it wasn’t for the friendly hare and his John Lewis alarm clock, would have slept through Christmas. Oh the media went wild! This was the best Christmas commercial ever and the cash registers slammed to the beat of demand.
Every time I watched that commercial I cried. I’m not being dramatic, I couldn’t help it. Sometimes it was a sniffly sob masked by an embarrassed chuckle at my own patheticness, at others it was a mini wail muzzled by a pillow in the emptiness of my flat. Sure there were other factors at play in my life at the time, like a little thing called family politics and relationship breakdowns, but the reality of spending Christmas without family and my closest friends for the first time shocked me in a way I wasn’t anticipating. Suddenly the familiar sparkle of Christmas was just a glow, flickering like a broken light bulb, and it caught me off guard.
I don’t tell you this as an invitation to a pity party, or mean it as a celebration of commercial marketing, I tell you this because being alone at Christmas while travelling long-term is actually, surprisingly, frustratingly, guilt-provokingly hard.
Whether you’re away for one or one hundred, if you’re still finding your feet around December, something like Christmas is likely to be the straw to break the camel’s proverbial. I never considered going back to my home country at this time, and I’m sure most others don’t either, but it did bring on the guilts for so much as even allowing the wonderful experience of travel to be momentarily overshadowed by a Grinch in John Lewis clothing.
This year I knew it was Christmas because the Kleenex once again claimed its position on the coffee table in preparation for the new John Lewis advertisement. This time JL have gone with ‘Monty the Penguin‘, a story about a boy’s pet penguin who is looking for love. Cute, hey? Except when he finds The One, she’s waiting for him under the Christmas tree and she’s a toy, just like him. An optimist would see it for the beautiful story of family and friendship that it is. A pessimist would take that as when you finally find true love, it’s stuffed. I jest, I get where they were going.
The whole Hallmark phenomenon gets us several times a year by pulling at all kinds of heart strings. Perhaps no more effectively than the vulnerable traveller, who, if like me and you’re in it for the long term, are susceptible to all kinds of reminders of nomadic loneliness. If you’re a romantic, it’s even worse. On one hand it seems fiercely unfair to have all these messages of love and family and hope and togetherness thrown in our faces when we’re dealing with our own bouts of alienation. On the other, emotions come in waves and can be fleeting so it’s important to remember there are many other ways to enjoy Christmas without family tradition. And of course I also understand the merriment and the excitement around the festive promotions and would never wish to take that away just to appease those who haven’t got it together the whole time.
I’ll pause here to get one thing perfectly clear, some people have absolutely abominably horrible Christmases that are all kinds of awful and my little rant about loneliness at Christmas certainly pales to “real issues”. My point is simply that as solo travellers, away from friends and family, we need to give ourselves a break and be kinder to ourselves if we’re feeling a little melancholy and sentimental at certain times of the year. I say this only in case you, or someone you know, is dealing with similar discomforts. It is tough, but actually there’s a lot of lessons to be learned and certainly a lot of fun to be had if we pay attention to where we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Like the fun in exploring Christmas markets and festivals…
Like the sights and scents of beautiful home-made festive decorations…
Like the joy of shopping during the Christmas sales…
Like the wonder in taking short-breaks to new destinations…
Like admiring the beautiful Christmas stores (and creating wishlists in places like Tiffany’s)…
Christmas is a beautiful time of year and in cooler climates they don’t call it a winter wonderland for nothing. It’s also the unexpected friendships that keep you warm, with or without mulled wine. It’s the twinkling, dolled-up streets. It’s the adventure of being in a new city. It’s the (small) possibility of snow. It’s a dinner somewhere previously undiscovered. It’s a new friend. It’s an adopted family. It’s an unexpected phone call from home.
Now I’m on my second round of Christmases away from home and this year will be incredible, I’m sure of it. I have quite possibly London’s most epic homemade feast planned, paired with the most delectable of sparkling wines and the right amount of silliness that drew me to my new group of friends in the first place. But at the same time, I remember vividly how I felt last year and I know how far I’ve come thanks to the passage of time and the establishment of routine and security. If you’re not so sure that your Christmas is going to be a merry one, or you’re getting a case of the serious home sicks, hang in there. There are metaphorical bears, hares and penguins everywhere, and it’s not only on the television or in your local department store that you’ll find them.
If all else fails, I’m told John Lewis sells some amazing alarm clocks to ensure you don’t miss a thing.
There’s no place like home for Christmas, but what else is on the menu? How will this Christmas pleasantly surprise you?