Category Archives: Christmas

Riding the roller-coaster of Christmas.


The annual dilemma.  How to spend Christmas Day??  If anything, my Christmases have certainly been diverse and eclectic over the last five years..

The first year, we (my kids and I) basked in the LA sunshine, cosseted by the warmth of our extended Indian side of the family.  Fun was the order of the day, laughter de rigueur.  In India I nursed the one and only bout of gastroenteritis I succumbed to in a whole year there.  Really, on Christmas Day??  But it summed up my feelings and luckily I was roused from the comfort of my bed just in time to witness the multi-cultural Christmas parade passing through the main street of the hamlet of Neyyattinkara.  For my third Christmas, I made it back to the UK relishing in a traditional English Christmas with my family.  Christmas crackers, board games and the opulence of too much delicious food.   Last year, the fourth Christmas morning, I lounged in the luxury of white crisp sheets in a plush hotel in Shanghai, before joining the band of singletons in Starbucks…  So what would Vietnam have in store??

Just like China purged religion with landownership and privilege during the Great Cultural Revolution, Uncle Ho* (or those who were of an equal  disposition) banished faith and worship to the periphery of  Vietnamese life whilst reforming the country according to the same communist principles.  The legacy of being the winners of the Vietnam War.  Contrary to widespread belief, there are plenty of Christians in Vietnam.  In actual fact, although the country is predominantly Buddhist, about 7% of its citizens are Catholic and Vietnam has the fifth largest Catholic population in Asia, after the Philippines, India, China and Indonesia.

But celebrating religious festivals is very much a private matter, and as in China, Christmas is definitely not a national holiday.  Schools are open and employees report for work.  Business as usual.    Local supermarkets and small independent shops have cottoned on though, as some Western customs and festivals are slowly gaining in popularity.  In the run up to the big day, vivid rainbows of tinsel and garlands showered the shops; vibrantly coloured baubles, deep-red Christmas stockings and artificial spruces in all shapes, sizes and shades of green festooned their ceilings and doorways.  A token of progress and development, of fitting in with rest of the world.  Vietnam on the cusp of a new and unstoppable revolution.


Thoroughly modern Vietnamese Father Christmases no longer rely on Rudolph and sleigh for transport, but crisscross town on motorbikes to  deliver presents in broad daylight to those lucky children whose parents can afford to pay for such extravagance.  At the language centre where I work, children feasted on biscuits and crisps whilst being initiated into the secular language associated with the ‘birth of Jesus’ –  Jesus played no part in it.  The closest I came to conveying a Christmas message was showing a Sainsbury advert from a few years back:  Mog’s Christmas Calamity.  At least it was humorous and contained a suitable moral, ‘Christmas is for sharing’…  But whilst the teachers and office staff at my centre indulged in a Christmas Eve dinner hosted by our ‘boss’, the Christian populace of the town gathered in the town’s churches.  Not unnerved by the sight of Santa towering over the entrance, mass was eagerly attended and the churches’ naves rejoiced with exultant Christmas carols.


Christmas Day itself turned out equally exultant indeed.  In the absence of family, we gelled together as friends.  After a late night – for some lasting into the wee hours – we got up early, very early, long before dawn, and piled into the waiting taxi on our way to Da Nang…  A three hour drive.  Having breakfast on the go, we explored the caves and pagodas of the Marble Mountains and took selfies with the tallest Lady Buddha in Vietnam (Linh Ung Pagoda).


I cannot honestly say I was riveted by the thought of  a KFC Christmas Dinner, but after several  months of being deprived of proper Western food, it was a real treat…   And it comprised all the essentials of the authentic British festive meal!  What better Christmas Dinner than savouring mouth-watering, succulent popcorn chicken bites, soft chicken meat that I did not need to prise from the bone with my teeth (turkey…) accompanied by crisp, hot French fries (roast potatoes)…   And a choice of chicken gravy and ketchup.  Delectable.  So there were no Brussels sprouts, but who misses those anyway… ?


Instead of hearty after-dinner walks in the countryside, or slouching on a sofa to watch Christmas specials, we spent our afternoon and evening riding the thrilling rides, rolling the corkscrew roller coasters and circling the giant eye of Asia Park, Da Nang’s amusement park…  And as Christmas was just a normal day for most of Vietnam, there were no queues…  We lost count of the number of times we were shaken, jolted, plunged, catapulted and swung…

A roller coaster Christmas.  Bring it on.


*Uncle Ho:  affectionate Vietnamese soubriquet  for  Ho Chi Minh, the driving force behind Vietnam’s struggle against French colonial rule.








Christmas. Made In China.


Christmas sneaked up on me, like the eerie whisper of a soundless ghost.  Whilst I was following doctor’s orders and for a whole week only moved between bed and bathroom, and the following week manoeuvred between flat and school on crutches and using taxis, Wal-Mart shot into action.  The special offers which usually blocked the entrance to the store were shelved to make room for all things Christmas: Christmas trees and Christmas decorations, Santa hats and Christmas headbands, and cute, adorable Christmas cuddly toys.  In a country where the religious meaning of Christmas is taboo, Christmas – although still small scale – is as commercial as it comes… But then again, are not ‘all things Christmas’ made in China anyway…?


Almost overnight Christmas trees had sprouted in prominent places and festive lighting along the streets filled Hangzhou with Christmas warmth.  The downtown bakeries offered Christmas inspired cakes, gingerbread houses and other Christmas goodies; Starbucks added a ‘Christmas Turkey Sandwich’ to the menu.  And Hangzhou opened its First International Christmas Market…  It was distinctly beginning to look a lot  like Christmas, in Europe…

This year I decided to enjoy Christmas, to rediscover some of the fun, the merriment that Christmas used to bring.  A tour de force, I knew…  As if positive thinking and wishing would be enough to disperse the dark, ominous clouds permanently lingering on the periphery of my existence.  I even fleetingly considered investing in a Christmas tree, to jolly up my pretty bare flat, but as I would most definitely NOT be spending Christmas Day at home, it seemed an extravagance too far… On the other hand, buying a selection of Christmas headbands to wear in my lessons in the week running up to Christmas sounded an excellent idea.  I would devote my energy on spreading Christmas cheer at school. Within the confines of China’s sentiment about religious festivals, of course, so no mention of the real message of Christmas, peace on earth and for all mankind.


We watched Christmas videos explaining  British Christmas customs: advent calendars with opening doors revealing stars and presents and other Christmas materialistic goodies; writing Christmas cards and letters to Santa; baking and eating mince pies; hanging Christmas stockings on the mantle piece ready for Santa and a traditional Christmas lunch including Christmas crackers which were probably made in China… We crafted reindeer hats in the English Club, and turned the Gingerbread Man tale (still Christmassy because it is the only time of the year anyone bothers to bake gingerbread biscuits) into a deliciously alternative play full of Grandmas and Mr Tigers and Mr Crocodiles and classrooms brimming with excited and smiley Gingerbread men!! Instead of subjecting the kids to a tame version of ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’, I taught them a super energetic Christmas song that had the whole class rocking and dancing (including me, which goes without saying.  Fun was an excellent anaesthetic for my knee…) to the jingles of my glittery Christmas hair band and frowns from the Head of English (who happens to be my assistant in some lessons..).  Let’s liven up the joint, it’s Christmas after all.  A time to be jolly, a time to have fun!!!!



This just left me to cope with the dreaded ‘day’.  Did I want to party with the 25-year-old somethings, hanging out in bars and getting merry?  Or spend a fortune on overpriced food in the venues in town that were opening their doors to the Christmas cheer?  Maybe someone would throw an impromptu last minute Champagne breakfast, followed by turkey and the works??  Some people only get their act together within a whisker of running out of time, I hoped…

In the end salvation came in the form of an Italian chef in Shanghai who offered to cook me dinner on Christmas Eve and lunch on Christmas Day…  So I booked myself into a snazzy hotel in central Shanghai and on arrival found myself being upgraded to an executive suite!!!  An unexpected Christmas gift I was not going to deny myself.  After months of sleeping on a hard Chinese bed, I had simply forgotten the sheer pleasure of sinking into the opulence of a soft mattress and pillows, and the crisp white linen of top-rated Western hotels.  Christmas was definitely turning out to be a visit to the lap of luxury…

But even the best laid plans do not always come to fruition and my very efforts to avoid spending Christmas Day on my own were badly thwarted.  Christmas Eve dinner was spectacular in its simplicity: pasta cooked as only the Italians can, followed by delectable Italian biscotti (or cantuccini) dunked and soaked in our glasses of wine and a finale of Limoncello… Having been seduced by the pleasures of his Italian cooking, I was not surprised that my Italian chef’s culinary skills were in demand on Christmas Day after all.  With just one day’s notice, the chef had been asked to conjure up a Christmas lunch and dinner for 100 guests by a rather influential figure in Shanghai…  And if you want to do well in China, some requests are declined at your own peril..

So instead of enjoying a private Christmas lunch for two, I enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of my hotel room and indulged in the bliss of writing..  And after checking out, I simply moved location and joined the Starbucks army of Christmas singletons.  In a coffee shop full of people, with each and every one of them lost to their own mobile world, I would be guaranteed to have virtual silence and  no interruptions…  Perfect for letting the creative juices flow…

It was a peaceful Christmas after all.



Hold on to your high heels and strapless bras!

DSCN0100 (2)

Last May, when I was in the midst of making sweeping decisions about my future needs, maintaining  my wardrobe was definitely not high on the list of priorities.   I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to preserve:   snorkelling goggles (tick); walking gear including Leki poles, boots, socks, drybags and backpack (tick); swim wear (I even bought a brand new, expensive swimsuit before setting off again to India…) (tick); running and gym paraphernalia (tick);  and just a handful of t-shirts, a couple of pairs of jeans (which still fitted) and a few skirts I was particularly fond of.  What else does a girl need?

Glam rags never cluttered my wardrobe, and of the few I possessed all bar two were donated to the local charity shops.  Strapless bras would be a thing of the past and totally pointless in my new world.  And high heeled shoes?  The dangers of the classroom and children swinging on chairs put paid to that a long time ago… Only flats for me these days!  I sold the Russell & Bromley smart heels that were gathering dust in the cupboard; and the precious, glitzy, diamante-studded sandals I took to India, just in case?  They lost in the competition for space in my suitcase on the way back to the UK, so are probably being put to good use somewhere on the dusty roads of Kerala.  When would the opportunity to wear them present itself anyway, I surmised..  Had I not argued that if I was ever going to be so lucky again to wear glamorous clothes, I would probably be in a position to buy new ones…?

With the family Christmas decided upon weeks ahead, New Year’s Eve was yet another hurdle to be overcome.  But I had been proactive and put out feelers with my ‘45nSingle’ friends in the Cheltenham area to see if anyone could be persuaded to host a pyjama party, or at least something with a sleepover at the end.  Surely, I was not going to be the only one out on a limb…  Although there is plenty of liberty with the 45-notion, the ‘single’ part of the deal is more strictly adhered to and surely there had to be other singletons in need of NYE entertainment!  And yes, a few days after arriving back in the UK, the news on the grapevine sounded promising with a party in the offing,  themed ‘Casino Royale’ with a dress code to match.

Wardrobe disaster, I thought!!  The two black dresses that survived last year’s cull were kept for memory’s sake and were not exactly a perfect fit for the slimmer me, but I figured that with a strapless bra I could just about get away with wearing one of them.  If only I had kept my strapless bra, because it is not exactly the thing you go and borrow as it needs to be the right size and shape…  And shoes?  Flats would have to do!  Maybe not the desired look, but at least my feet would spend New Year’s Eve in comfort.

I pondered about my options for several days.  Christmas intervened and took my mind of things, and in no time the year end was upon us.  On my way to the party I ventured into Cheltenham, as planned, to at least buy a pair of sheer nearly-black tights and maybe pick up some not-so-flat black shoes to complement my evening outfit, and indeed, as suggested by my son’s girlfriend, to inspect the bra offerings in Primark.  I will never again scoff at Primark, nor look down upon what can be found in the sales section of M&S…   A perfectly fitting pair of heels for just a tenner in M&S? I had to double check it indeed meant for the pair, and not just £10 for each shoe.  OK, so they were purple, not the more conventional black, but why care about tradition and aren’t rules meant to be broken?  Who would notice anyway after a few glasses of bubbly??  And a bra for just £4.00??  It felt like I was on a winning streak…  With the addition of  a bit of foundation, blusher, eye-shadow and a squirt of Hugo Boss Nuit Pour Femme, I was ready to party into the new year.

On a winning streak playing poker...

On a winning streak playing poker…

There mine, all mine... Why didn't we play for money???

They’re mine, all mine… Why didn’t we play for money???

And obviously, my lucky finds in the shops were just a sign of my fortunes to come.  I cannot profess to be particularly adept at the art of lying with a straight face, nor dismiss the element of chance,  but somehow  our game of Texan ‘Hold ‘Em’ poker  deservedly ended with all the chips in a big pile in front of me…

Maybe wearing a strapless bra and a pair of high heels more often, coupled with an Indian belief in the power of Karma could just be the ticket for me in 2016…   Let’s bring it on!!!

NYE group (2)

Christmas ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’ in the UK.


Once upon a time there was Christmas, the most magical and eagerly anticipated day on the Lee Family’s calendar.

Preparations in our household started early, indecently early.  Even before the sun had lost its summer lustre or kissed the autumn apples into blush, Christmas fever would slowly spread.   Boy, did I enjoy the build-up to the grand event.  So much to organise, so much to prepare and always maintaining an air of secrecy.  Although Santa could count on plenty of suggestions from my kids, there was forever the challenge to come up with the ‘surprises’ that would light up their small expectant faces when digging into their bulging stockings on Christmas morning.  And in the great Lee tradition, Santa never forgot to include the adults and left overflowing stockings for them as well..

End September used to herald my first swoop on the shops to explore any early  temptations, followed by a flurry of purchases throughout October and November, long before most of England would have woken up to contemplate the dwindling days to Christmas.  I don’t like crowded malls and stores, so made sure I finished my Christmas shopping well ahead of the throng of the masses.  This meant that by end November I could concentrate on the more important aspects of the celebrations: food, writing Christmas cards, wrapping presents and decorating the Christmas tree.  As early as end November mince pies would feature on the menu, drowning in oodles of thick, luscious cream.  And because few of our Christmases were spent at our own home, mid December required a pre-Christmas Christmas dinner, complete with turkey, trimmings and crackers.  Baubles, garlands, Christmas bells and twinkling lights festooned a huge spruce, filling the house with the delicious smell of pine.  And then there was the Christmas Carol singing – outside Sainsbury’s  or Tesco – with St. Edmund’s Church to raise money for the homeless… When Christmas day arrived in all its glory,  we were just left to savour its splendour in  the company of family and friends.

And then things changed.  That first Christmas, we could not face staying in my Cotswold home, a home brimming with memories of many happy Christmases.  Christmases with Grandma and Auntie B, opening our stocking presents over early morning coffees.  Christmases indulging in the mesmerising smells wafting from the kitchen.  Christmases with the dogs needing a brisk walk in the crisp winter air before chasing discarded wrapping paper from far too many gifts.  Christmases with friends or just the four of us.  That first Christmas we ran, we escaped to the sun of Los Angeles, and peace of Big Bear in the San Bernandino Mountains, to a Christmas that was unlike our normal Christmases.

And if India, last year,  was meant to give me a reprieve from Christmas, I had chosen the wrong part of the country as Kerala’s  Christian population made sure Christmas was celebrated in style.  Stars in garish colours, garlands in all hues, nativity sets aplenty and noisy Christmas parades, but I spent the day in bed nursing the one and only bout of gastroenteritis I fell  prey to in the ten months I spent there.  It seemed a fitting way to get through the day; I was in no mood for festivities.

So avoiding another dismal Christmas on my own, I booked my flight to the UK for the beginning of December, plenty of time to work up a Christmas appetite.  But the Christmas carols greeting me on my arrival at Heathrow grated and jarred and rather than evoking a joyful air, they sounded hollow, empty and did not  arouse my Christmas cheer.  And  aimlessly wandering the High Street of the small market town where my daughter lives, I witness locals busying themselves with their Christmas preparations.  Holly wreaths, Poinsettias red and white, mince pies and stollen scream to be bought.   Shop windows have been jollied with colourful decorations; snowmen and winter landscapes stop passers-by, young and old, in their tracks.  The Salvation Army band choruses  ‘tidings of comfort and joy’, but the message is lost on me.  Father Christmas has  set up his grotto in a snow globe in the middle of the shopping mall.  Whereas a few years ago, all this would have warmed my heart and sent my Christmas spirit bubbling, now the lead grey winter skies settle tightly on my chest.

Christmas has definitely lost its sparkle.  And when my daughter asks, ‘‘What would make you feel Christmassy?’,  I cannot suppress the honest answer,  ‘Boxing Day???’

‘Once upon a time’ does not always end in ‘happily ever after’.