It's the last day of November, and the Christmas cards are bought, but not yet written. The first trip to the post office to buy UK stamps has been made. You still have to be a little more organised about Christmas when you live abroad. But this time of year makes me think about my childhood, as the daughter of expatriate parents in Hong Kong, and how being an expat has changed such a lot in 30 odd years.
In the 1970s and 80s, all Christmas cards and gifts were sent by sea mail from Hong Kong (I suppose air mail would have been outrageously expensive). We would avidly, then, wait for the 'last posting date' for the UK to be advertised on TV - usually this was some time around late October. My mother's Christmas cards, all carrying meticulously composed handwritten messages about our family (she didn't believe in round robins), were therefore ready for posting before Halloween. I clearly remember one year, aged about six, when I was helping her carry them to the post office. We lived in a block of flats, and as we stepped into the lift on the way to the car, I managed to drop half the cards down the lift shaft.....as you can imagine, my mother was not impressed.
Christmas cards were sacrosanct in those days; they were the only way we ever heard from some friends, and we relished their arrival, because we could read all about how people back in the UK were doing. Now, in these days of keeping in touch via Facebook, email and the like, they've become less necessary - but I'd be sad to see them go the way of the aerogramme letter (how many expats still send those?). I still write them, and it's lovely to receive them, especially from friends and relatives at home. (This year I've even ordered some personalised ones with photos of the boys on them - after having realised last year that I was the only parent around here who hadn't produced such a thing).
With no online shopping, it wasn't possible to do as I did last year and arrange all the gifts to be sent straight from Amazon to UK addresses - or organise online gift vouchers. (This year we've decided to package the nieces and nephews' presents up and send them, as it seems a little more personal - I just hope they arrive intact). Nevertheless, we always received proper wrapped presents from our UK aunts, uncles and relatives, and my mother would send them special gifts from Hong Kong - little silk purses, embroidered cushion covers, Chinese slippers and the like. So much thought went into it- no doubt partly because it had to be thought about so early on.
Christmas Day itself was perhaps the only day of the year when we telephoned the relatives in England. Today, we can make Skype calls whenever we feel like it, but back then, international calling was both expensive and complicated (involving going through the international operator before you could make the call). But hearing those voices of grandparents on the phone, so far away, was something very special. (I always found the distance between ourselves and our loved ones quite confusing when it came to Father Christmas, though. How could he bring the presents from the UK to Hong Kong in one night - unless he travelled on the Cathay Pacific nonstop flight?)
In the evening, we would sit down and watch the Queen's Speech from London - live, via satellite, which made it somehow seem quite exciting. In this outpost of the British Empire, such traditions were still going strong. We also attended carol concerts, nativity plays and Christmas parties galore - although real Christmas trees weren't available, so we had to make do with a fake one. My mother always cooked a turkey with all the trimmings, and we had homemade Christmas pudding - I have no idea where she bought the ingredients. It's a bit different here in America - if anything, they embrace Christmas more than we do - but you still notice the differences (for example, no-one's heard of mince pies).
Technology means the world has certainly grown smaller - as an expat now, I feel pretty connected to what's going on in the UK. I even know, from Facebook and Twitter, if it happens to have snowed in the last hour. But sometimes I think that it means we take the distance for granted. We're still not there - and, as Michelloui's post today reminded me - if there was a crisis at home, we'd still have exactly the same issues to deal with. Being an expat then was certainly harder; but we really appreciated the contact that we did have with those back in the UK. And my memories of those Hong Kong Christmasses, and the effort my mum put into them, will remain with me forever.