“It’s not so bad, once you’re here you get used to it. There’s always a staff party”
In my time in the bush I’ve used this sentence on countless occasions to try and console first timers. Being away from family during Christmas and having to work can be a trying time if you chose to focus on home too much. The first Christmas I worked I was so homesick I refused to speak to my family. I knew exactly what they were doing, eating, drinking and even fighting about. I’ve never been one to be homesick, but somehow Christmas has always been a special family time for me; 2012 was the only year that I refused to hear from them, thankfully It’s gotten easier since then, after all “it’s not so bad, once you’re here you get used to it. There’s always a staff party” .
Eventually, the more Christmases you work, the easier it gets, and the people you work with become your tribe. There’s a tacit agreement to listen to everyone’s Christmas traditions and stories; to make sure your neighbour always wakes up on time for morning drive; that you don’t drink too much at the staff party; and that everyone gets a decent white elephant present. It’s a time of silliness feared by managers, maybe caused by the sense of holiday carried in the air.
Christmas has always meant family to me. It’s always been that time of the year where no matter how much drama there’s been, everyone comes together to make Latvian cookies, Venezuelan hallacas and taken on together the challenge that is Gianfranco’s Christmas lunch.
As the year draws to an end, I always become a bit nostalgic and start focusing on all the things this time of the year used to mean to me.
And so, I start to remember.
I remember believing up to not too long ago that Christmas was actually meant to be celebrated on the 24th. That’s when my parents normally made us open their presents, and that’s when we went for Christmas dinner.
I remember always feeling puzzled as my direct Italian family seemed to celebrate things differently. I always felt Latvian during the lead to for Christmas Eve.
I remember the Christmas we all secretly laughed at Ricky for being convinced he had somehow managed to steal Santa’s hat while he slept on the couch next to the Christmas tree.
I remember the time Gimli managed to pushed down the tree and there was chaos.
I remember being little and feeling special by getting Christmas dresses from Opi. Omi might have been involved too, but it was Opi the one that took the spotlight in making sure everyone was at its finest during Christmas Eve dinner.
I remember being old enough to think “wtf” during Christmas service when the pastor got too political over the years.
I remember my mom singing all the hymns in Latvian. I knew one, I don’t remember it anymore.
I remember playing Barbie dolls with Fede on a brand new “Barbie lounge set” and eating the ice cream of the “crystal plates”. It was cookies and cream.
I remember the pride I felt the first time I was tasked with kneading the dough to make Pirags (Latvian bacon buns) by my Omi. I remember the subsequent arguments with her every year after on making so many cookies when not everyone came to help out.
I remember eating my weight in pirags with “guasacaca” and Pepsi, because Tico and Vilis decided that this was how they tasted best.
I remember making hundreds of “hallacas” that I would never eat because “ew, raisins”
I remember my mom always washing dishes and plates on Christmas Eve to make sure Omi would for once enjoy an evening. I remember growing a conscious and starting to help her.
I remember the 25ths belonging to the Italians and to Sebucán. The never ending challenge of getting past half of the dishes that Gianfranco had prepared for all of us and never winning.
I remember the honor I felt when I was asked to contribute with a dessert.
I remember the exact feeling when my mom woke me up in her ever tactful fashion “Wake up, we have to go to the cemetery. Nonno died”. I remember feeling broken inside because I didn’t know how to be there for my dad. I remember being so incredible grateful for our family friends and their inappropriate jokes that kept my dad going through the day.
I remember the exact moment when Christmas was forever be changed.
I remember fireworks at midnight. I remember trikitrakis.
I remember the saga that it was to find a Christmas tree. I remember the treasured decorations that got stolen at Tia’s wedding.
I remember everyone having a set unspoken spot in the living room for opening presents.
I remember having one my most memorable mornings on safari and almost being trampled by buffalo while they escaped hunting lions. It was amazing.
I remember management decorating the tree at River Lodge in most hideous fabric.
I remember there always being a storm in the African summer.
I remember watching guests during their Christmas dinner at the lodge and feeling content for sometimes there is good in the world.
I remember being grateful for my family and friends as I grew older and hoping that if I could send them a wish across the sea, it would always be for them to be happy.
Every year, doesn’t matter if I’m working or not, I have learned that there is a special quietness to this time. It’s a time to be kinder and thankful, and with a nostalgic air thrive to be a better human.
Although in 6 years I have only managed twice to not be at work for Christmas, the family I grew up with and the family I have chosen is always present, even when I refuse to speak to them. Wherever you are, I hope your ones in all their shapes and sizes, are there for you too.