About four o’clock Sunday afternoon, Rich and I strolled out of our house in downtown San Anselmo, California and ran into a neighbor in her eighties. She was jauntily attired in pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers to walk her dog.
“Some things never change,” Rich murmured happily.
Embracing eccentricity is one of the hallmarks of our little town, which is just 20 miles north of San Francisco and about 20 degrees off kilter from mainstream society. People often show up at the local coffee house in outfits that include a sleepwear element, such as slippers, flannel PJ bottoms, or a robe flung over jeans and shirt, but it’s rare to encounter what we’ve come to call “the full San Anselmo” on the street in broad daylight.
“It’s wonderful to see people honoring the traditions,” I agreed.
Tradition has been much on my mind in the past weeks, as this is the first time in 12 years that Rich and I are spending the holidays in the US, and the first time in 30 years we’ve been with family in California. We’ve never decorated this house for the holidays and have no idea where locals go (besides the couch in front of their own TV) to ring in the New Year. When people comment on how happy we must be that we’re home for the holidays, I nod and smile but don’t feel that actually applies to us at all.
Our tradition is to gather with friends in Seville on December 25 — which, curiously enough, is one of the few days the Spanish don’t throw a fiesta. After weeks of parties and dinners, culminating in a lavish feast with relatives on Christmas Eve, most Spanish families are simply too exhausted to go on. Gift giving, that powerful motivator to gather with your nearest and dearest, takes place on January 6, Three Kings Day, so Spanish families tend to take a bit of a breather until then.
My friends, however, are made of sterner stuff. Every December 25, Rich and I host perhaps two dozen guests, from babies to octogenarians, a mix of locals with no family obligations and expats in the mood for holiday cheer. By three o’clock our apartment is a madhouse, the hall filled with shrieking children, the kitchen jammed with pot luck dishes, the feeble old electrical system struggling, not always successfully, to power up the oven, stovetop, and microwave. Before we pass the turkey, we hand around holiday crackers, those paper tubes you pop open to get a flimsy paper crown, a cheap toy, and a lame joke such as, “Q: What did the cowboy say when he walked into the German car showroom? A: Audi!”
Yesterday I was thinking of Christmases past and wondering about this year’s celebration. So I called my sister Kate, who’s hosting the family on Christmas Day at her home in Silicon Valley.
“People will start arriving around three,” she said. “There will be about two dozen of us, including kids. Everyone is bringing a pot luck dish. It will be a total madhouse.” So it seems Christmas won’t be so different this year after all.
As this particularly crazy year draws to a close, many of us are wondering what lies ahead. Everyone is predicting that 2017 will be a challenging year for the nation and the world. Of course, “everyone” has been wrong before, so maybe the next 12 months will be filled with unprecedented peace, prosperity, and good will towards all. But just in case that doesn’t happen, if we are indeed entering turbulent times, then it’s up to us to help each other weather the storms.
I don’t know where I’ll be a year from now. (Does anyone?) Perhaps I’ll find myself in Seville celebrating with friends, or gathering with family in California, or wandering the streets in my pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers. But as the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō reminds us, “Every day is a journey. And the journey itself is home.” Looked at from that point of view, wherever I am, this year or next, I'll be home for Christmas. If only in my dreams.
Amigos, I'm taking the next two weeks off to enjoy the holidays with family and friends, so I won't be posting on this blog again until early January. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the holidays, the year just past, and what's coming up in 2017. Cheers!
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
As I resettle in Seville, my favorite city on the planet, I'll keep you posted on how the pandemic has reshaped the landscape and where to go to find fun, adventure, and great food in this quirky, engaging city.
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