Spending Christmas in a foreign land? It's all about the trimmings

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      When we checked into our hotel room in Luxor, Egypt, on December 23 and I saw the dark-green floor lamp, I knew we could pull it off.

      Pulling it off–having a genuine Christmas so far from our Vancouver home in such a foreign land–had been on my mind for some time.

      It had been over a year since my husband and I had suggested to our then seven- and nine-year-old sons that we spend December 2000, the sixth month of a family trip around the world, in Egypt. Spence and Shane had been enthusiastic about celebrating Christmas in the land of pyramids as long as it was "a real Christmas with Santa and stockings and all that".

      Sure, kids, in a country that is 90 percent Muslim, with our battered backpacks bursting at the seams, we'll just whip up some holiday magic.

      To that end, as we travelled we bought Christmassy gifts. We asked friends and relatives to send seasonal cards to a mail drop in England (our last stop before Egypt). We splurged and reserved a room at a fancy hotel that offered a Christmas Eve dinner.

      And then we checked in and I saw the lamp, and I knew that one of the most beloved of Christmas traditions was within our grasp. Because, when we taped the wooden angels, stars, and snowman ornaments that we'd brought from Bali to its shade and pole, the lamp was transformed into a Christmas tree.

      At its base, we laid small gifts drawn from the depths of our backpacks and, on Christmas Eve, two well-worn sweat socks that Spence and Shane had decorated with candy canes and red-nosed reindeer in felt pen. We all fell asleep reassured that Santa would find us in Egypt.

      Talking with friends from Vancouver who have also orchestrated family Christmases abroad, we learned our experience was a common one. Because when it comes to creating happy holidays in foreign lands, it's all about the tree.

      Daniel Savas laughs when he recalls how an innocent comment made while they were bouncing along a mountain road in Oudtshoorn, South Africa, a few days before Christmas meant that his young children, Niko, then eight years old, and Claire, five, got a Christmas tree.

      "We were staying in a cabin in this beautiful valley east of Cape Town," recalls Savas, who, with his wife, Shary Bartlett, and children, was on a yearlong trip. "The owner's son took us on a drive into the surrounding mountains, and I commented on how the little dwarf-pine trees that grew along the road reminded me of Christmas trees back home.

      "This fellow, who presented himself as a bit of a naturalist, said the trees were weeds because they weren't native to the area. We went for a hike and midway through he just reached down and ripped one of the trees out of the ground and presented it to me, roots and all."

      Back at their cabin, the Savases propped the half-metre-high tree in a corner. At the local store they bought flour and salt to make ornaments that they then painted and hung on the tree. The family attended Christmas Mass in Afrikaans and were invited to the owner's home for dinner. "It was," Savas says, "one of those Christmases you just never forget."

      Despite it being Christmas, the last thing Ande Axelrod expected to see at her kayaking base camp in Conception Bay, on the west coast of Mexico, was a Christmas tree. She and husband Larry had travelled with their 18-month-old son, Jake, to the Baja for kayaking and camping. Not only was the family geographically removed from the trappings of a Canadian Christmas, the Axelrods are Jewish and so not the traditional tree-trimming types.

      But there were Jake and two-year-old Olivia, daughter of Paddling South owner Trudi Angell, gathering seashells and bits of flotsam and jetsam–dried seaweed, twigs, small pieces of rope–to hang on a desert bush that grew at the edge of the beach.

      "I was lounging in front of our thatched-roof palapa," Axelrod says, "sipping my coffee and watching the kids decorate their tree. And I thought to myself, 'This really is the way to do the holidays.'"

      The Vercammens had never done the holidays in so hot a climate as they experienced in December 1999. Most Christmases, the family–dad Jim, daughters Laura and Kelsey, and mom Kelleen Wiseman–flew home to Saskatchewan to be with the grandparents. Snowstorms and temperatures of -40?C were standard fare.

      "But here we were in Melbourne, Australia," Wiseman recalls, "and it was 40?C. On Christmas Day we went to the beach and burned our feet on the sand. We just couldn't believe the difference."

      The family was on a yearlong sabbatical in Australia. The children were five and 10 years of age and expected some of the trappings of a Canadian Christmas. But their parents could not bring themselves to buy one of the fake fir trees with sprayed-on tinsel for sale in the local stores. "It was even weird the way they sprayed the windows with fake snow," Wiseman says. "Just the way they did it made it obvious they really didn't understand how snow falls."

      Walking in Princes Park a few days before Christmas, the family found a eucalyptus branch lying on the ground. With only a few leaves still clinging to it, the branch was as bare as Charlie Brown's tree. But it had potential.

      Back at their rental home, they filled a vase with dirt and rocks and stuck in the spindly branch. Laura and Kelsey donated Playmobil figures, including a Santa Claus and a couple of camels, to be ornaments on the tree.

      On Christmas Eve, the family made lemon tarts (a Wiseman family tradition) with packages of lemon pie filling sent by a sister in Saskatchewan. Later, when they were sitting in their shorts and T-shirts, admiring the tree and nibbling on tarts, Wiseman admits, "It felt pretty darn Christmassy."