A Christmas away from home

Editor’s note: This is another of TGI staff sharing stories of favorite Christmas memories. If you would like to share a story of a favorite Christmas memory to be published in TGI, please email it to thasslinger@thegardenisland.com

In my family, Christmas has always been a major to do. Each year, my mom’s side of the family — her three siblings, their spouses and all the cousins — would gather at my grandparents’ house, first in St. Louis and later in Michigan.

Turkey feasts. Sledding. Snowball fights. Christmas movies. Stress and chaos. Everything that makes the holiday so special for so many families.

On Christmas morning, the grandchildren would line up, youngest to oldest (that’s me), outside of the living room, anxiously waiting for grandpa to swing open the doors and to catch a first glimpse of the presents.

There’s the time — my family likes to remind me —when I was given a fighter pilot jacket and a cardboard plane, and the hours I spent “flying” around the room like Snoopy. There’s the year we all went out to the family condo in Colorado — skiing, making Christmas ornaments and everyone gathering for photos on the staircase in matching Christmas pajamas.

To celebrate my grandparents 50th anniversary, the entire Leber gang spent Christmas in Jamaica, where my grandparents had traveled for their honeymoon half a century before. And grandpa, as he did so many times before, sang in his deep voice — in this case to a crowded restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in Montego Bay.

Somewhat strangely, however, one of my more memorable Christmases was the year I was out of the country. Perhaps it was being away from family that made it so memorable — I can’t say for sure.

I was teaching English in southern Brazil and had been given several weeks off in December, summer break in that part of the world, to travel the country. My friend Gary and I started in Fortaleza and made our way, by bus, south. On Christmas Eve, we passed through Natal. I remember seeing the giant tree of lights in the center of the city and having a conversation about whether we shouldn’t just stay there for the holiday, given its appropriate name. A decision was made to continue on to Porto de Galinas, a beach town south of Recife.

On Christmas day, Gary and I, along with a number of other young travelers away from their families, spent the day sharing stories of home over cold beers and swimming in the crystal waters of Brazil’s northeast. That’s when the dolphins arrived.

I have a lot of amazing Christmas memories, some that have begun to fade with time. This one, however, is as clear as the day it happened.

Within a few minutes, what seemed like 100 dolphins swam up to our group. At first, we looked at each other and wondered whether this wasn’t something we should be concerned about. Were they running from something? Should we get out of the water?

But this was playful fun. As the waves broke, the family of dolphins jumped and surfed. Some swam within just a few feet of us before quickly darting away to show off once more. This lasted awhile before the pod swam off, and I remember thinking, “Not going to find anything like this in the Midwest.”

Dinner that night was also far from typical. No family stories. No turkey, ham or stuffing.

Instead, the hostel hosted a potluck-style meal. A group of diverse travelers, from Australia, New Zealand, Spain and the U.S., making the most of a Christmas away from home, and doing their best to break through language barriers.

Was it normal? No. Would I have preferred to be surrounded by family? Sure, that’s what Christmas is about. But my family forgave me for not being around that year, just like they have forgiven me for moving to a remote island in the middle of the Pacific.

Now, if I could just convince all of them that Kauai is a wonderful Christmas destination. After all, warm weather, surfing and dolphins isn’t half bad.


Chris D’Angelo is the TGI environmental writer.


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