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My first Christmas away from home, I wore nothing but a hat and sunscreen on a beach with two new friends

Rosita Boland reflects on two very different Christmases in far away places

My first Christmas outside Ireland

The first Christmas I spent outside Ireland was in Australia, aged 22. I was on a one-year working visa, and had a job as a receptionist in a garage in Sydney. My Australian housemates had become my friends, and one of them, Cath, invited me to spend Christmas with her and her friend, Gen. Gen lived in Victoria. We were all to meet up and go camping, at a New South Wales (NSW) location I knew nothing about. This was a period in my life when I said yes to pretty much all new experiences.

Three months in, I was still not accustomed to the light, the sun and the easiness of living an outdoor life in a beautiful country. Of going swimming at any of many beaches after work, of drinking great wine for half nothing, of living in a place where nobody knew anything about me other than what I chose to share with them. In that entire year, I was to meet only two other Irish people, and they were the couple who fortuitously picked me up on St Patrick’s Day when I was hitchhiking in Western Australia, and with whom I shared a happy day drinking Victoria Bitter beer in their van.

Bega Beach in NSW had white sand, gum trees on the fringe of the beach, azure-blue water and nothing else. We pitched Cath’s large tent under the shade of some trees and hung up our food supplies in string bags from the trees, to keep thieving creatures away. The Esky cooler was kept in the truck. There was a toilet block back from the beach, which we had to ourselves, as we appeared to be the only campers on Bega.

It was Cath who suggested we abandon our clothes for the duration of our stay, since there was no one else around to see us. I was momentarily flabbergasted, and then recalled that this was the year I was saying yes to everything.


I kept my newly acquired Akubra hat on, as well as a regularly-applied layer of 50 plus Aqua Sun, Australia’s fantastic sunblock. We were in and out of the water scores of times a day, treading water, sharing stories, looking up at that endless blue sky. In the afternoons, I sometimes slept lying on my pink sarong in the shade of a tree. In the evenings, we lit a fire, and Cath and Gen barbecued fish and skewers of vegetables. Unused to barbecuing food, my contribution was doing the washing up.

We must have gone sometimes to the nearby town to get fresh supplies, and we obviously must have got dressed for those expeditions, but when I look back at those perfectly idyllic few days now, I have no recollection of anything other than that gorgeous beach, and our faded green tent, and of wearing only my hat all day.

On Christmas Day, we ate barbecued prawns and sliced mangoes, and boiled a tiny tin of Christmas pudding over the fire. The brand was called “Big Sister Plum Pudding”. I remember this detail clearly, because it made me laugh and think of my own big sister, who was back in Ireland celebrating Christmas in the family home. I was a true adult now: I was spending my first Christmas away from my family. I kept the label and stuck it into the diary I wrote that year.

It is a wholly refreshing experience to spend Christmas Day without anything that references any former tradition

The day after Christmas was the day Cath and Gen were amused to hear me refer to as “Stephen’s Day”, when they knew only of “Boxing Day”. This was the day when other campers suddenly emerged onto what we thought by then was our own private beach. Those campers were wearing clothes, or at least what passes for clothes at any beach: board shorts, T-shirts, sarongs and bikinis.

The three of us were in swimming when this first wave of new campers arrived. We emerged as a trio from the water in naked solidarity with each other. We didn’t run to retrieve our clothes from the tent, we walked there as if we owned the beach, which in fairness, we had done until mere minutes before.

I have never since spent days and nights at a beach like that. I am not sure I ever will again. But for a first Christmas away from Ireland, it was a perfect experience. Those calm hot days of utter freedom and privacy with the constant backdrop sound of waves live in my memory like sea-washed pearls.

My most recent Christmas outside Ireland

Since then, I have had many Christmases outside Ireland, in many different countries, most of which do not even mark the day – a day which is simply another date in the calendar. Last Christmas was the first of my life without both my parents. In recent years, we had gathered at their home in Clare to be with them, and these were happy times. The first Christmas without either of them was one I wanted to spend far away.

It is a wholly refreshing experience to spend Christmas Day without anything that references any former tradition. I woke up in my beautiful room in Ubud, Bali; in a place where there was not a single decoration or any evidence of Christmas – a festival being celebrated in so many other parts of the world.

First I went for a swim in the pool that was set in a hollow of banana trees and palm trees. The sky was grey, it being an unusually rainy rainy season. The water uplifted me in every sense.

Then I went walking around Ubud, umbrella in my bag. I thought of Christmases past; as long as a string of fairy lights. It is a privilege just to be alive in the world, and I was keenly aware as I walked through Ubud’s busy streets and lanes and markets, that we should – I should – remind myself of this privilege more often.

I sat at that counter and finally, gingerly, investigated my emotions about the people with whom I would never spend another Christmas

At noon, I went to Taksu, a spa in the centre of Ubud, and lay in a stone bath filled with rose petals. There was an atomiser in the hut with me, and some Balinese music tinkling quietly under the sound of a nearby river. The petals were red and orange. I lay there and thought of nothing.

By the time I emerged, it was raining hard. I had lunch in the small open-air restaurant at Taksu, under a woven canopy, the rain making waterfalls over huge leaves on the green trees all around me. It reminded me of being in the car with my father as a child when he was getting the car washed, and how we watched those spinning green and blue brushes come towards the window and over us, the sensation of being underwater, and the power of the water shaking the car as the machine moved over us. It was one of my most favourite shared experiences with my father as a child; just the two of us, safe together inside the car with each other, while a wild water storm tried, and failed, to get to us.

There were phone calls to family, who wondered if it was sunny. I looked at the forecast for the next week in Bali, and realised the rain was going to be relentless for many coming days. I sat in a cafe and put “Denpasar” and “everywhere” into a flight search website for the next day. By the time I got up, I had booked a flight to Phnom Penh; a city I had not been in for 20 years.

Later that evening, I sat at the counter of a fancy new restaurant on Monkey Forest Road, and ate sashimi and drank a glass of cold white wine, reading the New Yorker on my phone. It was still raining. I sat at that counter and finally, gingerly, investigated my emotions about the people with whom I would never spend another Christmas.

I realised I was simply grateful for all the many happy experiences there had been; that I was no longer sad, and that the people who loved me would not want me to be sad either. The truth is that this is all part of life: our messy, unpredictable, joyous lives. It is just the cycle of life, ancient as time, that people come and go from our lives. We cherish them while we have them, and then we let them go.

“Did you have a good day?” the waiter inquired as I paid the bill.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I did.”