Christmas Tales from Elsewhere

Sunset over a lake in Myanmar.The camera lens reflects beams of light stretching out either side of the sun.
Sunset over Dawei, Myanmar, Christmas Day 2017. Photo credit: Sara Johnson

¡Feliz Navidad!

Vivienne Griffiths on a post-Brexit escape

After the heart-rending referendum result in 2016, my partner and I were determined to spend as much time as possible in Europe before the UK finally left the EU. The following year we spent a memorable six months living in Berlin, followed soon after by a month in Málaga over Christmas and New Year. 

Málaga is a wonderfully vibrant city, and we loved being there over the Christmas period, despite staying in an apartment over a noisy bar, which opened from late evening to the early hours nearly every night except Sundays. Earplugs were essential! There was a great atmosphere of celebration everywhere, with families gathering to eat and watch the magnificent light and sound show every evening. We queued up with hundreds of others to buy fish for the traditional Nochebuena (Christmas Eve) meal and walked along the quiet seafront in the sun on Christmas Day. 

On New Year’s Eve we joined a huge crowd in Plaza de la Constitución, with our 12 grapes to be eaten on the strokes of midnight – no mean feat. And on 5 January we took part in the  Cabalgata de Reyes Magos, when the three kings paraded through the streets on decorated floats, and children fought for the sweets they threw. It was the longest Christmas celebration that I have ever experienced and a very special one that I won’t forget.

… and Christmas Apart

Christmas is a difficult time for me because my daughter Sara lives thousands of miles away in south-east Asia. The first Christmas away was when she was teaching in India in 2013; the following one was her first in Myanmar. She has now been teaching in Yangon for nearly six years and we have visited her three times. Sara has spent Christmases in all four corners of the country, in the jungle, on tropical beaches and in the mountains. I always remember speaking to her on Christmas Day a few years ago on a surprisingly clear video link from a snow-covered mountain in Chin State in the north-west (now sadly a no-go area), with small children all around her. 

Then came Covid. Myanmar closed its borders and schools in March 2020; Sara reluctantly had to return to the UK and has been unable to go back since then. She spoke to me on Christmas Day last year from a quarantine hotel in Bangkok, hopeful that she might return to Myanmar soon. But with a horrible irony, a military coup took place there on 1 February 2021 and she has had to remain in Thailand ever since, teaching the children in Yangon online. This year we will be apart again.

Christmas lights above a shopping centre in Malaga, Spain, give a cathedral-like image.
Christmas lights over a shopping arcade in Málaga, Spain, December 2017. Photo credit: Vivienne Griffiths

What’s that white stuff?

Rod Watson recalls a seasonal encounter

I was 12 and had spent most of my life running barefoot on the baking plains of Africa. Through a bizarre set of circumstances I ended up in a Foundlings Hospital in Edinburgh in the autumn of 1962. It was grey and cold. The boiler house was the only place I felt warm. At mid-morning, the day before Christmas, my uncle arrived in a brand new Jaguar to collect me for the Christmas break at Perth in Scotland.

The car was lovely and warm and smelt of new leather and fresh oil. Outside the greyness became a more intense shade of grey before finally turning white: snow. I had never seen such a thing before and asked him if he could stop so I could touch it. We did stop for a minute, but he was eager to push on. His large house was on the top of a hill and by the time we arrived at the bottom of the hill the snow was already a foot thick. But Uncle was well prepared; he buckled snow chains on the tyres and we clanked up to the top.

That evening all the fireplaces blazed fiercely as 14 of us sat down to a feast of jugged hare, venison and a selection of old Edwardian sweet puddings. In the morning, Queen Mother style, were woken by a piper, a solitary dark figure against the whiteness. Then we tobogganed down the hill, again and again. We skated on the frozen rivers and went curling on the lake. Certainly there has not been a winter as severe as that since, nor, in my book, such a wonderful one.

… and a Night on the Tiles

The years rolled by and I had started my first job, which was in the City of London. The day before Christmas Eve was the office party. We stopped work at three in the afternoon for sherry and mince pies. There was also gin and tonic – in unlimited quantities. I had just got used beer, but this was a new departure. 

At 5.30pm we lads went on to a pub in Soho. A tramp wandered in, staggered around and was sick down a woman’s party frock. The woman’s boyfriend knocked him to the ground and began to kick him. A bar room brawl worthy of John Wayne in a Western broke out. I seized the soda water siphon and started to discharge its contents at the combatants.

The fracas appeared to go on for forever. Then suddenly, I could not move, but was being moved along at a fair pace. Through the doors, along the pavement, my face touched cold metal, then it went dark.

When I awoke I was in a small tiled space. At one end a steel door, at the other a small high barred window. I had read accounts of a gang operating in London which captured people and removed their organs for transplants. Was I to be their next victim?

My case was heard that morning. Fined ten shillings for ‘being drunk and disorderly’.  ‘Office party?’ was all the magistrate had to say. I had just enough time to go back to my bedsit, clean myself up and drive my motorbike to The Savoy where it was taken care of by The Car Jockey. Along with my uncle and his friends, I enjoyed a marvellous dinner, but nothing like my first Christmas Eve.

When it snowed… East Chiltington, East Sussex, December 2011. Photo credit: Ginny Smith

Christmas in a War Zone

Rick Dillon recalls an unseasonal yuletide

Christmas 1963, Cyprus, and dark days lay ahead for the island. Not that I was much aware of that as I pored over pictures of pop stars in Fab magazine and painstakingly glued together model aeroplanes. I was, after all, just 11 years old.

The first time I knew something was up was when my parents said we were packing up and leaving our bungalow in the suburbs of Nicosia for a neighbour’s top-floor flat. As night fell, I joined some adults on the roof. All around us we heard bang, bang, bang … the sound of gunfire. One man spoke into a tape machine: ‘This is Christmas, Nicosia, 1963 …’

The next day another neighbour returned to their bungalow to collect presents they had left behind in the rush to evacuate. Across the path leading to the front door they came across a body. The image this conjured up haunted my imagination for a long time.

The fighting continued: it became known as Bloody Christmas, but I don’t remember anything as dramatic as that first night. Cocooned in our neighbour’s flat, we enjoyed the usual Christmas celebrations… while the conflict that was to divide the island simmered all around us.

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