Sometimes it’s best to face Christmas than try to escape it
By Fay Schopen
Can you ever truly escape Christmas? In 2007, I discovered that you cannot, no matter how hard you try. I was living in New York, studying for a master’s degree. My boyfriend at the time, who lived in London, was flying over, and a Christmas spent in my tiny studio apartment did not appeal. Christmas in New York is renowned for being a sparkling, magical time – but that winter I remember freezing slush rather than picturesque snowfall; and negotiating my way through slippery streets clutching a bottle of super-strength cockroach killer was the closest I got to ice skating in Central Park.
We opted to go to the Dominican Republic for Christmas and new year, for reasons somewhat lost on me now. But, if Cuba was out for American tourists, then the Dominican Republic would have to do.
Christmas and I have a chequered history. It turns out that there are several Christmases I’d rather forget: a Caribbean Christmas, I rationalised, would transcend the ghosts of Christmas past. There would be no tinsel, turkey or tree. Instead, we would be holed up in a charming villa in a tropical paradise. The sea would be crystal-clear, the cocktails wouldn’t give us hangovers, and we would parade around in our swimwear looking like a Sandals advertisement. It was a good idea – until we got to the Dominican Republic.
We landed at 5am on Christmas Eve and waited around in a truly miserable room – “hotel” is too strong a word – until it was time to be transported to our villa by the beach. Sun, sea, and sand. Barbecues and pina coladas. All good things. But, not it turns out, at Christmas time.
There’s a photograph of me that Christmas Day. I’m on the beach, wearing a colourful dress, a beer beside me. And I look utterly miserable. The problem, it seems, is that when you’re not used to it, Christmas in the sunshine just doesn’t feel right. Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about that for long, as it soon began to rain. And – I appreciate that my memory may be playing tricks on me here – it rained for a fair portion of the trip.
The highlight of our holiday was playing crazy golf on Christmas Day. That was the sum total of local attractions, if you discount the bar and club, which was depressingly full of sex tourists. We played game after game of Scrabble, and my boyfriend won every single one. This frustrated me so much I threw a full-on temper tantrum. I couldn’t even lose myself in a good book – my preferred activity on holiday – as I had to read a particularly dull assigned text about evolution for one of my classes.
What there was, however, was rum – and plenty of it. We got so bored and drunk one night in the sex-tourism bar we thought it was a good idea to go with some locals to their place to get further intoxicated. We had rented a scooter, so we followed them for miles to what looked like a murder house. Half built; replete with bare bulbs to complement the bare mattress on the floor. The locals left us there and said they were going to get supplies. We sobered up, realised we were going to be mugged, kidnapped or worse, and fled.
After the trip was (finally) over, we flew back to London together, as I had some time off college. But my boyfriend sat in premium economy and I sat in economy. He said he booked himself premium economy “by accident”.
There are many reasons why relationships end, and although it would be a neat moral lesson to say that our Caribbean Christmas revealed the cracks in ours and the error of our ways, I can’t: we stayed together for a further five years, off and on. But our tropical torment did teach me one valuable lesson at least: don’t go on holiday at Christmas.
There was one final surprise: I caught crabs from sitting on that bare mattress in the murder house.
We had flown 1,500 miles, but you can’t outrun the season. It will overtake you and flatten you like a truck. You can’t beat it no matter what you do. Trying to ignore it is sheer folly: you will get drunk and fall in the mud; you will lose at Scrabble; and you will end up with pubic lice. I have since made my peace with Christmas, and these days, I do my best to embrace it in all its flawed, festive glory.
Fay Schopen is a freelance journalist based in Kent, England