This week I added up all the Christmases that I have spent away from Canada. The years that my family lived in Senegal, West Africa came first. Then there was the time we visited my grandparents in sunny Florida. After that came my years in North Africa. And, finally, this will be my second Christmas visiting my husband in Bolivia. That makes 12 in total — meaning that almost half of all my Christmases have been spent far from "home" in Canada.
There are quite a few things that this unique way of life has taught me. I've boiled it down to four holiday lessons:
A white Christmas isn't universal
Many of my Canadian friends think a Christmas without snow is pretty weird. And although climate change has made that less unusual, even in the True North, winter is still part of what makes Christmas Christmas for so many.
But from the time I was seven, Christmas to me was sandy beaches, swimming till the sun went down, palm trees covered in lights, and singing Christmas carols clad in shorts and a T-shirt. If I'm honest, that's still how I picture Christmas. When I do get a snowy Christmas, with decorated houses glinting off the snow, it seems like a kind of fairytale — the ones I only got to hear about when I was a kid.
Here in Bolivia, we're much more likely to have a rainy Christmas than a white one. Although I prefer the sunshine, a cozy rainy day in front of the Christmas tree is a-OK with me.
The 25th isn't a deal-breaker
If you're a Gilmore Girls fan like me, you remember the episode where Lorelai and Rory decide to delay Christmas till they're together. Hilarity ensues as they try to get candy cane hot chocolate long after the tinsel has been taken down.
When I lived overseas, this kind of Christmas just came with the territory. I couldn't always get back to my parents in Halifax for Christmas, so we had a couple different versions of the Gilmore Christmas. One was in October (dubbed "Christgiving") and another in February.
I don't think many people are certain about the exact date of Christ's birth. Celebrating his birthday at a different time simply lets us extend the joy a little longer.
I missed the presence of my family so much that it was a physical ache.
Presents are fun, but seeing loved ones you miss is better
I will admit that I love presents — both giving and receiving. I love the physical representation of your love for someone, and the care that goes into choosing a gift.
But for the three Christmases that I was far from any family, it wasn't presents I was thinking of. I missed the presence of my family so much that it was a physical ache. It's why, now that I'm married, I've made sure that I spend Christmas with my husband no matter the cost. To me, there is simply no substitute for presence, or for the feeling I get when I see him after months apart.
And while at times I've chosen to be with family at a different time of the year, the Christmas joy is always the same, whenever I see them. All year round, being with my family is my very favourite thing.
The look on kids' faces is the best part of Christmas
This week my husband and I spent an hour in the crowded Bolivian market, picking out a toy for a very special little girl. We know her mom well enough to know that she likely won't be able to buy her little one a Christmas gift this year. So, amongst the dizzying array of Barbies, kitchen sets and My Little Ponies, we carefully chose a Princess Sofia doll. Then we had it wrapped in matching princess paper, and presented it to our little friend in front of our Christmas tree. The look on her face when she tore off the wrapping, and the way she pressed the box to her lips, had me blinking back tears.
I had the same feeling at a Christmas celebration hosted by World Vision in Bolivia. The children from the community performed Christmas carols and then were presented with beautiful gifts of dolls and dump trucks. The little girls compared princess dolls, kissing their new toys, while the little boys grinned at their treasures and called out "Feliz Navidad" to the staff.
Their parents are fighting just to put food on the table — gifts are simply not on the list of necessities.
Watching them, I remembered being a little girl, and the feeling of magic I had opening a much sought-after gift on Christmas. The difference, of course, is that I always knew a gift was coming, and that it was coming from my parents. For these children, there is no such guarantee. Their parents are fighting just to put food on the table — gifts are simply not on the list of necessities.
I will never know why our world accepts that some children have less than others. It's the one thing that I cannot come to terms with from my years overseas, the one lesson that I have had the hardest time with.
What I do know is that, whenever I can, I want to be a part of balancing the scales. That's why my husband and I have decided sponsor a little girl from Bolivia through World Vision. We are painfully aware of how much we have, and that it's our responsibility to reach out to those in need whenever we can.
For you, that might be donating to your local soup kitchen, or giving a loved one a meaningful gift from World Vision's Gift Catalogue. Whatever you choose and wherever you are this Christmas, I am certain that knowing that you are making the holiday season just a bit brighter for someone in need is the best gift of all.
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