Having grown up on the east coast of the U.S. and in Germany, I think it’s safe to say that not only do I enjoy cold weather during the holidays, I expect it. There is something strange – to me, at least – about celebrating Christmas amidst palm trees and coconuts, in humidity and around mosquitos. I took the notion of a cold and cozy Christmas for granted until this year, where I found myself celebrating the holidays in the tropics, wearing a Santa hat and a tank top and drinking incredible amounts of eggnog because it was the only beverage that managed to cool me down. It was certainly my most unusual Christmas to date, and while I can’t say I prefer the tropics to fluffy snow, I did have a pretty great time making this hot, hot holiday a memorable one.

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festive lights at the Galle Face Hotel

Walking the streets of Colombo during the days leading up to Christmas was a singular experience. It wasn’t just the lights, the Christmas trees, the “Merry Xmas” signs in so many of the shop windows. It was all of this combined with the heat, the traffic, the Buddhist stupas one block away from blown-up Santas. I have said and will say again that the thing I love most about Sri Lanka is its diversity — and this holiday season, Colombo was a lovely clash of cultures.

I admit I did miss the handful of traditions my family enjoys every Christmas, traditions like Grandmommy’s chili and bread sticks on Christmas Eve; we kids opening our handmade stockings before Mom and Dad wake up on Christmas morning; and Anne Murray’s caroling, which began with a tape cassette in the ‘90’s, graduated to a CD in the early 2000’s, and is now enjoyed by my family on one of our iPods with speakers in the living room – or, if we can’t seem to find any iPod, through Pandora.

But – and maybe this is what every young adult says when they experience their first Christmas away from home – traditions can change. They can be adapted. A holiday concert at the Kennedy Center becomes a night of traditional Christmas carols at a high school auditorium in Colombo, where the Sri Lankan (and I’m pretty sure predominately Buddhist) choir sings about Frosty the Snowman and dreaming by the fire (during which the audience sits in small wooden chairs, sweltering under creaking ceiling fans). Instead of snow, holiday shopping is completed while trudging through a humidity level of 90%. And who says the family’s annual Christmas letter can’t be written from the bustling Mumbai airport during a long layover between Colombo and Kathmandu? This is a 21st century Christmas – improvisation and creativity is essential.

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So, this Christmas, instead of Grandmommy’s chili, I had spicy pumpkin soup and homemade eggnog (thanks, Sean!) In lieu of stockings, my house in Colombo was (and still is) decorated with paper snowflakes and plastic branches of holly. In place of Christmas cookies was the ever-popular Sri Lankan holiday “love cake,” and there was certainly no lack of Christmas commercialism in this Buddhist country – store clerks in Colombo wear Santa hats, billboards advertise reindeer bragging about how much they save on interest rates, and holiday lights adorn the neighborhood I live in. This holiday, I Skyped with friends and family, did my Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve (rehydrating by drinking out of a coconut as I made my purchases), opened presents in bed under my mosquito net on Christmas morning, and had a small, personal, Christmas Eve church service of sorts on my balcony. In many ways, Christmas spirit was all around me this year.

And, best of all, I had my sister, Katrina, here to join in the celebrations with my Fulbright friends. One of the best things about being part of a globe-trotting, I-love-you-and-I’ll-see-you-when-I-see-you family is that when we say goodbye to each other – even if we don’t exactly know when we’ll see each other next – we know it won’t be long until we’re together again. Katrina hadn’t planned on coming for the holidays, but in November she found an inexpensive December flight, and after a fifteen-hour layover in Jeddah, she was in Colombo, jet-lagged but ready for a vacation! And when she arrived, despite the heat, despite the lack of a Christmas tree (Colombo’s version of Christmas trees are actual pine tree branches sold on the side of the road), I had family. And, hugging Katrina and her big red backpack on the balmy street in front of the airport, it finally, truly, felt like Christmas.

christmas collage

…And then, on the 26th, after two days of celebrations with friends in Colombo, she and I headed down south to the beaches, where palm trees were wrapped with Christmas lights, holiday cocktails were splashed across every beach-hut menu… and we decided there really is something to be said for celebrating Christmas in paradise.

unawatuna xmas time

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