The holiday season means different things for different people, but for most, it’s a time to be with family.  For the past 28 years of my life I’ve spent Christmas surrounded by the traditions of my family, and the people I love.  In early December we set up the tree and hang a lifetime of individually special ornaments on it’s boughs.  About six years ago we gave up the real thing for a surprisingly realistic impersonator, which we delightfully discovered holds a lot more.

The tree makes the living room so cozy, it’s twinkling lights casting a warm glow on a special season.  And my mother doesn’t hold back on tastefully decorating the rest of the house either.  We hang stockings in the hallway, and festoon the kitchen window with winter inspired embellishments.  Christmas music fills the house, starting with a tradition on Dec 1, when my mother dusts off an old Jim Reeves record and wakes up the household with Jingle Bells.

Around Dec 6, we celebrate a Dutch tradition with our own little twist.  We indulge in a gift exchange lovingly called Sinterklaas, (which means Santa Clause in Dutch) with a $10 limit and a mandatory poem.  It’s a lot of fun, and is a good Christmas kick-off.

The smells of Christmas baking start wafting from the kitchen in mid December, and my mother has a long list of goodies she makes.  Delicious gingerbread men are free-flowing during the holidays, my mother recruiting volunteers as they pass by the kitchen, to press out a few men and put them in the oven.  Chocolaty Nanaimo bars and scrumptious cream puffs get rationed due to their popularity.  Marshmallow squares, and sugar cookies are also baked and enthusiastically devoured throughout the holidays.

This year I spent Christmas in Singapore, thousands of miles away from my family, and it was hard.  When Tyson and I were in the planning stages of our trip, I never really considered what it might feel like to be so separated from my family during a time when almost nothing else matters.

This year I didn’t do any Christmas shopping, no hunting and searching for the perfect little gifts for siblings. I didn’t do any wrapping, or conspicuously placing packages under the tree.  At first it was easy to forget what I was missing at home.  As a matter of fact, I didn’t really know what day it was until Dec. 25 was nearly upon me.  The temperature was hot, the scenery un-Christmasy, and there was absolutely no chance of snow.

But as the final days before Christmas drew near, I started to long for the traditions I was used to.  I missed my mother’s baking, the decorated tree and counting down the days on the advent calendar.  I knew my stocking was hanging empty in the hallway.  All of this made me a bit depressed, and I really missed my family.

Christmas day was nothing special for us, although I was glad to be with Tyson.  We enjoyed our breakfast buffet and then ate some chocolate we’d bought the day before.  I was sad to be away from my family, and Tyson had to cheer me up a bit.  We lazed around the hotel room for a few hours and then went for a walk along the canal.  We enjoyed a decadent mocha at a little coffee shop, before I video chatted with my family for a couple of hours.  I think they really missed me too.

This year I didn’t attend midnight mass on Christmas eve, and I missed out on the feast and gift opening afterwards.  I didn’t listen to any of the Christmas music I knew was playing at home, and I didn’t get to speak to my grandmother and other relatives on the phone.

I realized that Christmas is only special when you spend it doing what’s meaningful to you.  Otherwise, it’s just another day on the calendar.

In the future, no matter where I am on this planet, I won’t miss Christmas with my family again if I can help it.  Our Christmas traditions have strengthened our family bond, giving the season special meaning for us.  This trip has made me realize that I value my family’s Christmas traditions, and spending time with them.  After all, they’re my traditions too, and I’m so thankful for that.