for Solveig
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My First Christmas at the Age of 31 by Dr Gulara Vincent

As I stood by the door waiting for the train to stop, a large backpack pulled my right shoulder down. I wondered whether my host was already at the train station.

I was invited to spend Christmas with E’s family. She was one of my lecturers when I studied for my Master’s degree, and was now the internal examiner for my PhD thesis. As all public transport stopped operating from the evening of 24 December until 27 December, I was due to stay with her family for three nights.

Anxiety gnawed at me. Never before had I stayed with an English family. Sure, I rented a room in someone’s house with other people, but that was a completely different experience. What was acceptable? How should I behave whilst with them? The stakes were high. This was someone I held in high esteem. Too fearful to get things wrong, I hardly breathed when I got off the train.

Outside, she was waiting for me in a red sports car. I nearly whistled when I saw it. Sleek and fast, the car shone in the gentle winter sun. She gave me a hug and invited to get in the front seat. We sat in the car with the engine running for a couple of minutes talking about the weather, the train journey, her family waiting in the house….

Why is she not driving? I wondered.

‘Do you want to put your seat belt on?’ She said eventually.

I cringed internally. The first five minutes, and I’d already screwed things up. She was waiting for me to buckle my seat belt. Coming from Azerbaijan, where people did not use seat belts, and relying on public transport in England, I’d completely forgotten about this important detail.

We got to her house, and my jaw dropped. It was huge. A dining room, a reception room, a music room, a spacious kitchen with a large dining table, a cosy TV room, another room at the back…. I felt slightly lost trying to take in the ground floor, and from what I could tell there was another floor or two up the wide staircase. Then, there was the family. Three sons, a husband, a dog, a few neighbours dropping by. I just wanted to go and hide in the large bedroom allocated just for me.

I unpacked my backpack, leaving clothes behind and taking my gifts downstairs.

‘Put them under the tree,’ E’s son said.

I stared at a large pile around the freshly cut Christmas tree. They all had name tags attached. I didn’t anticipate meeting so many people so I had two presents which didn’t have anything to identify that they were from me. Reluctantly, I placed them under the tree, and cringed some more.

That night we had a delicious dinner, watched tele, listened to music and went to bed. Father Christmas dropped off a stocking full of odds and ends.

Perhaps I could survive another two nights, I thought, shaking under a thick duvet. I was so scared to get things wrong…. A goofy smile was plastered across my face all the time. I didn’t know what to do, or how to busy myself.

The next day, we had a large breakfast, followed shortly by a proper Christmas lunch. I felt stuffed, almost bloated. The carved turkey, ham, roast potatoes, steamed vegetables, three varieties of pudding…. Luckily we went for a walk after lunch. I was relieved to move in the fresh cold air. My digestive system, which clamped from anxiety, started relaxing a little bit.

Until we got back from the walk and all gifts were brought into the middle of the guest room. Sitting next to the blazing fire in a large fireplace, I sipped lemonade and watched the process with anxiety. They handed a gift to each member of the family in turn. Mum, dad, first son, second son, the youngest one, a daughter-in-law, a girlfriend, then another round, and another one. After a family member took a gift, he or she unwrapped and admired it. Most presents were admirable. Expensive equipment, wetsuit, perfume…. My gifts were nothing in comparison. A surge of anxiety made me sweat when someone picked my parcel and asked who it was for.

‘It’s for E. From me,’ I said in a small voice.

She opened and admired it. To my surprise, my name was called out. I got a gift too. How thoughtful of them. With shaking hands, I opened the present and found a sweet red tea pot.

A little later, they came across another parcel from me.

‘Who is this for?’

‘E,’ I said.

‘We better give this to B,’ her son said, passing the package to E’s husband.

I should have said that. My self-consciousness was agonising. The potentially enjoyable activity of unwrapping tons of presents turned into a torture for me. I wished I’d brought gifts for all the family members, I wished I knew the ritual in advance, I wished I had a lot of money to be generous towards my hosts.

Eventually, we went to have dinner. I breathed a deep sigh of relief. The worst part was over.

In the evening, we played games. We teamed up, and drew pictures that the other team had to guess. I was rubbish at drawing, and even more self-conscious around E’s sons. They laughed at me in a good-natured way, and my drawing deteriorated further.

The Boxing Day was low-key. We had breakfast, some of the family members left after lunch, and I finally understood the meaning of ‘Boxing Day’. It had nothing to do with boxing as in sports…

Departing on the morning of the 27th, I was deeply grateful: grateful to have experienced a ‘proper’ Christmas; grateful to breathe again and let my plastic smile fade away; grateful to go home and collapse. Christmas was hard work!

Somehow, I hadn’t messed it up completely, because to my utter surprise they kept having me back every Christmas until I got married. It was as if I became part of that family during Christmas holidays. Honoured by their affection and semi-adoption, I tried to relax during my visits. I knew the routine, and got everyone presents, though the anxiety of getting it right and matching their generosity had never left me.


Author Bio:
Dr Gulara Vincent is a writer, blogger, and a university law lecturer. She lives in Birmingham, England, with her husband and two young children. You can visit her writer’s blog at http://gularavincent.com/blog or connect with her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrGularaVincent) and Twitter (@gulara_vincent).

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39 thoughts on “Advent Calendar Day 2: My First Christmas at the Age of 31 by Dr Gulara Vincent

  1. What a nice story. I know several people who, as adults, have spent holidays with “stranger families.” My family has hosted some of them. I know it’s not easy but if all parties are open minded and welcoming of each other and each other’s customs, then it can be a very rich experience.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Corina, thank you for your sweet comment. It’s been such a rich experience, and something I really appreciated: they took Christmas seriously and I know what proper Christmas looks and feels like. Precious!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a wonderful memory and, even though many people have celebrated Christmas for most of their lives, they can still relate to the anxiety of wanting to get it right. There are always new experiences and new customs, which we come into contact with, and I think this is a great example of how we should embrace them even when we’re nervous.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Gulara, thank you for this beautiful piece. I think that whenever we join a different family for Christmas we are worried about how to respect their traditions and protocol. I have a memory of my uncle not at all behaving like he should have one Christmas (my aunt did not brief him correctly). I think you behaved greatly, and can teach everyone how to deal with the first Christmas, first Christmases happen often, not just for those who never celebrated it before.
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for having me in this festive line-up, Solveig. I think what it also taught me that we worry way too much about getting things ‘right’ – whether it’s getting ‘right’ gifts or saying ‘right’ things. It was a wonderful experience, and now I wish I just relaxed and enjoyed myself. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It sounds like they were accepting from the beginning. Having experienced the opposite, I am soooo happy for you! It’s about the love, not the presents. That’s awesome.

    P.S. I love Pictionary, the game here where you draw pictures and guess. Most people can’t draw well and that’s what makes it fun. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m sad to hear you had a difficult experience. I got very lucky with that family. It seems many people struggle with the festive season (my husband is deeply traumatised by Christmas celebrations so dreads it every year).
      Oh, and thank you for the name of the game! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. A lovely story! You’re brave – I never would have been able to spend days and days with my internal examiner. Mine was way too intimidating! Thanks for sharing and looking forward to your other posts. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was such a privilege to be there, and as you say, her being my internal examiner added another layer of pressure on top of being clueless about the tradition.
      Many thanks for reading and commenting, Anita, much appreciated!

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I know, they were amazing and took it seriously in a light-hearted and fun way. I got so lucky! After I wrote this piece it dawned on me that I should have researched Christmas before I showed up there. What was I thinking?! 😀 Oh well…

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I just love the details that made you feel unprepared. Often when we encounter a different culture we want to mimic the natives while often they are accepting of our differences and even enjoy learning from our own traditions. I felt for you since I have been in many situations where I felt uneasy, only because I came from another place.
    Lovely post, Gulura.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I suppose we all experience this when we form a liaison with another family and spend our first Christmas with them – I had that with my to be in laws; everyone has their own traditions – my daughter invents new traditions each year it seems – but coming from a totally different culture must put enormous strain on you. This is a beautiful piece of writing, Gulara (not that I’m surprised from you own blog) oozing with the emotions you went through.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much, Geoff, your praise about the post means a lot to me. I love that your daughter invents new traditions every year – what fun! Though I also value old traditions… It was great to experience those family celebrations, especially given that my husband doesn’t like this particular festival (scarred for life!). So we’ve invented our own family tradition – a week in sun 🙂 10 days to go before we are on our way. Can’t wait!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I love the stories. They are helping to get me into the holiday spirit this year. This one was especially interesting because everyone experiences this time of year differently. Glad to learn about yours. I hope to be included in this guest posting for the month here, assuming there is still room. I look forward to whichever day I’m given. Happy Holidays to all.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comment Kerry.
      Did you not receive my email? I send you one quite a while ago… I have you planned in, just for the day, it’s your pick, unless you want me to choose…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Look forward to reading your story. Thank you for reading mine. Like you, it helped me to get into the holiday spirit. Solveig, this is such a great series. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading, Susan. I must admit, it was super-charged. I can be awkward socially, but getting it wrong with the internal examiner… that felt way too scary. Luckily, she still loves me, and even though we don’t spend Christmas with her family, we pay each other visits at least a few times a year. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Oh Gulara! I could really feel your incredible anxiety and crippling self-doubt. My mother’s father was a Church Pastor. While they were incredibly intelligent and had high social standing, they were incredibly poor. My Dad’s mother was a concert pianist who had been on TV and was quite a celebrity back in the day. Mum met my Dad at a concert held in her home where there were famous authors etc. Quite the society type thing. What to wear sent Mum into quite a frenzy as did her first date with my Dad, which was to his friend’s 21st. Mum wasn’t very confidant and likes to blend in and was very much like yourself at that first Christmas. Thanks so much for sharing xx Rowena

    Liked by 1 person

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