‘I’d rather be anywhere than at home for Christmas – even if my children hate it’

·9-min read
Suzanne Moore and family at the Taj Mahal
Suzanne Moore and family at the Taj Mahal

It’s that special time of year, where normally I would be planning a getaway. Every family has its own special Christmas tradition, and ours is: “Mum goes mad and makes us go away to scary places.” I wrongly assumed when I had children that they would inherit what I would call my “spirit of adventure”, and others might call recklessness. Stupidly, I also never quite got the measure of how conservative children can be.

They want to do things the same way everyone else does, and there is no time that this need is more pressing than at Christmas, when for some unknown reason we all have to pretend to live in nuclear families and recreate the idea of a Victorian Christmas. Why?

Perhaps you can tell this is not my idea of fun. Indeed, the very idea of it makes me feel claustrophobic – and no amount of therapy can shift that – so what I like to do is go away at Christmas, for the actual day itself if possible, and certainly for that weird limbo bit between it and new year. What is that all about? Those empty days. Very early on, and when living on a tight budget, I also realised some very cheap deals are to be found then.

As a result, my children have been hauled all over the world at “this special time”. Now they are grown up, they can see the funny side, but it’s not always been that way.

There was the most “Un-Christmassy Christmas” ever episode when I took them to actual Bethlehem on Christmas Day. Rather cleverly, I thought, I had booked us into a Franciscan monastery on the actual Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, which was full of pilgrims wearing crowns of thorns. The monastery wasn’t the height of luxury, let’s put it that way, and the children found the monks “creepy”.

On the day itself, we had to take two different taxis – an Israeli one and then a Palestinian one – and there was still a bit in between when people threw stones at us as we were getting into the car.

“Well, this is exciting!” I said, trying to jolly the children along. “Mum, people are throwing stones at us! It’s horrible.” In those days before the appalling wall was built, there were still many checkpoints as we were going into the West Bank and Manger Square was somewhat bleak, with pictures of Yasser Arafat everywhere and a straggly Christmas tree. “Is that Jesus?” my youngest asked, pointing at Yasser.

“Well, not exactly.”

Jerusalem skyline with Western Wall and Dome of Rock, Israel - Alexander Spatari/Moment RF
Jerusalem skyline with Western Wall and Dome of Rock, Israel - Alexander Spatari/Moment RF

We went down into the crypt itself in the Church of the Nativity and were surrounded by strange Korean nuns, singing. The girls really didn’t like it and were very concerned about where we were going to have Christmas dinner. To be honest, I had not really thought that through, and we ended up with some falafel while Israeli conscripts dumped their enormous machine guns on the table next to us.

This, deemed my kids, was the worst Christmas ever. “This is actual Bethlehem, where Jesus was born” cut no ice. Why had there been no stuffing and telly like other people have? Actually, later, though, they did admit the Dead Sea was amazing and I took them to Petra in Jordan, which is undoubtedly one of the wonders of the world.

A negotiated settlement was then reached where if we went away one year then I would have to stay home the next, but still various bargains called out to me. An incredibly cheap deal to China popped up. Beijing! Wow, how could that not be amazing? I guess I hadn’t factored in the extreme cold and actual culture shock. Weather is not something I really understand, but I have never been so cold. Wind chill, or something?

The Great Wall of China in snow - 00one/E+
The Great Wall of China in snow - 00one/E+

As we wandered round the Forbidden City with audio commentary by Roger Moore and then out into Tiananmen Square, even I could not pretend it was a pleasurable experience. In the middle of the square I sat down and wept, demanding someone bring me tea. “Get up, Mum, what are you doing?” Thank God there was a seven-storey KFC on the corner.

There were some strange entertainments going on in our hotel but mostly we could not get over the custom that some locals had of spitting in public or indeed on the carpet at the hotel buffet. One does one’s best to understand cultural difference. That is the point of travel – but some differences, to be honest, are almost impossible to grasp. Still, we got up in the morning – which morning who knows, the jet lag was intense – to see Chairman Mao’s corpse. This was bizarre indeed, as you are hurried past and shouted at a lot. We had not bought flowers, and you are not meant really to look, as he has gone orange and one of his ears has fallen off, I think, and has to get stuck on every so often.

Still, surely more memorable than charades and crap light entertainment?

Frozen lake at Beijing's Summer Palace - Chalffy/E+
Frozen lake at Beijing's Summer Palace - Chalffy/E+

Not being good in the cold, I complained ridiculously about the Great Wall of China only being a wall – I am not quite sure what I expected – but then, magic happened. The magic that happens when you are somewhere unknown. We went to the Summer Palace, where the huge lake was frozen over and everyone was skating and Chinese people were in hysterics at the way we ate our pot noodles. It was all so strange and yet somehow as Christmassy as it could be. It was unexpectedly beautiful.

Yet, the incessant moaning about holidays at Christmas continued, and I felt it had to be dealt with once and for all – so I retaliated by booking the most expensive trip of my life. Having somehow deprived the children of tradition, I took us all to Lapland. Originally, the idea had been some ice hotel palace with organic food, but the Swedish woman whom I was talking to said she would accept us only if we did the whole journey by train – which took more than 36 hours. Eco, yes, but that was out, so I went the commercial route. Flights and an all-inclusive package. This meant Santa. Elves. Activities.

The thing is, though, Lapland isn’t really a place – it’s the north of Norway, Sweden and Finland and, disputably, Russia. The packages take you to Finland and it’s the whole full-on Father Christmas experience with naughty elves, group singing, snow and saunas.

Dog sledding with huskies in Lapland - Sabine Hortebusch/iStockphoto
Dog sledding with huskies in Lapland - Sabine Hortebusch/iStockphoto

It’s all very weird, to be frank, but the younger kids love it. The Northern Lights are not guaranteed. I know, bummer. My main memory of that trip is that you have to get dressed in so many layers and snowsuits every time you do anything that it’s exhausting. But there are ice-fishing, snowshoes, rudimentary skiing, and best of all, huskies. To be pulled along at speed by these blue-eyed beasts is just thrilling.

Various elves appear all over the place, which is a plus if you are nine, but the food is unremittingly awful, which is a minus if you are not nine. Undoubtedly, though, the whole “Santa on Christmas Day itself” was done very well. My eldest two, who were nearly teenagers by then, were as flummoxed as I was by the single women who go on such trips by themselves and buy their own presents for Santa to give them. They also pushed to the front of every activity for children. My lovely teens called them Psycho and Rehab. The spirit of Christmas indeed!

Still, as a result of Lapland and a Christmas at home, we actually all agreed on going to Cambodia. Timing, however, was again unfortunate as even I found the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum on Christmas Eve in Phnom Penh too much. The Killing Fields was Boxing Day and er… um, oh well, fully traumatising. Thank God there was the “compulsory Christmas gala” in the hotel to take our minds off the bits of bone and hair that are all still in the ground we had walked on.

Tuol Sleng prison - tang90246/iStock Editorial
Tuol Sleng prison - tang90246/iStock Editorial

One year, we pulled off the Taj Mahal on New Year’s Day, though it involved a lot of arguing and travelling, but we also had huge mad merriment at an Indian New Year’s Eve disco. They sure know how to party.

Obviously last Christmas, I tried to pretend Covid was not happening and booked us on to a boat in Sweden, something which was – as everyone pointed out it would be – both freezing and unfeasible. They were right. We went nowhere.

Now my daughters are older, we do indeed joke about all this. I mean, how bad has my Christmas wanderlust been for them? They have seen Angkor Wat, the Taj, Jerusalem and the Great Wall of China in between the real stuff. As deprivation goes, their sob stories about proper Christmases don’t really touch the sides. They have the rest of their lives to stay at home and do it all “properly”.

Yet my desire to escape it all will never leave me. We will be at home this year but oh, look... some Twixtmas deals are popping into my inbox and who can resist? I can’t. Though they have reminded me that the jaunt to Iceland did not really work out as it was dark all the time with howling wind and I became demented after three days of no light. Was it really that bad? And now will I be trapped again by a stupid virus? I hope not.

I am still of the “nothing ventured” frame of mind. Make it a day to remember? Isn’t that what mums are meant to do?

No one can say I haven’t tried.

Do you prefer going away at Christmas, or staying at home? Let us know in the comments section below

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