Wednesday, December 25, 2013


This time last year, as I've made quite clear a number of times, was probably one of the hardest parts of my entire exchange (if you'd like to reminisce with me a bit, click here).
I was quite unexpectedly invited by my lovely German friend and fellow exchange student in Egypt Regina to attend a service at a French-speaking Jesuit church, secretively tucked away deep within Sidy Gaber, the neighborhood where our calligraphy teacher lived. That plus spending time with her afterwards, dancing down the streets toasting with little pastries and singing Christmas carols was absolutely amazing, bringing the holiday spirit I was so desperately missing to life in the streets of Alexandria. :)
The Christmas party that AFS organized for us the next day was fun as well, and even my host family surprised me with a little Christmas tree that they bought in secret. :) 
It was amazing and touching both how Regina and I were able to cheer each other up so easily and effectively by simply being who we were - two teenage westerners, homesick and pining for a holiday that we both so dearly love and were missing for the first time, and also how far out of their way so many Egyptians went to partake in a tradition unfamiliar to them just to make me feel better.

But overall, this time last year was undeniably one of the low points of my exchange. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday, and winter my favorite season, since I was a very small child, and so being away from my home and my family at Christmastime, in a country where it's not really celebrated no less, was extremely difficult. I pined for snow and all the fun things that come with it (snowball fights, skiing, skating, sledding, etc.); for freshly baked holiday cookies; for bright, colorful Christmas lights; for decorating the tree with my family and buying gifts to share with all the people I love most; for the voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, and carols in general; for watching my favorite holiday movies like Elf, Love Actually, and The Polar Express; simply for the overall spirit of the season, this magical time I've loved since childhood. And as I missed all these things, painfully aware of their irrelevance in a country who's only sizable population that would celebrate Christmas in any capacity - the Coptic community - wouldn't be celebrating for another two weeks, I battled the most intense and crippling homesickness I've ever dealt with in my entire seventeen years of being alive. 

This past month, conversely, has been absolutely incredible for me. Given that I'm naturally much more conscious now of how much I appreciate Christmas and many other typical American celebrations, I've anticipated all my favorites with a special zeal this year. I attempted to brighten up the end of finals week by bringing some gingerbread cookies to school for my friends, went all out with gift-giving and decorating, and have been blasting Christmas music from my laptop since the day after Thanksgiving, soaking up all the holiday spirit I possibly can - with great success to boot, I must say. :) 
I hosted a lovely holiday party at my house on Sunday with a group of a couple close friends, and attended another one last night hosted by good friends of my family. And today, of course, I got to see the reactions of my family to the gifts that I got them, and they got to see mine to the ones they got me. :) Not to mention, tonight my mother and I leave for a ten-day trip to Italy to visit our family there!! :D I'm super exited, as I haven't been in Italy since April 2012 and can't wait to see my family and friends there again. And additionally,

But back on the topic of holidays:
Because of my experience with missing Christmas so much last year in Egypt and enjoying it so thoroughly this year, I have noticed much more clearly how important holidays are to their respective cultures. They embody and celebrate the values, ideas, heritage, and traditions most dear to a culture or society, and show what it considers most important.
Furthermore, the traditions preserved in specific celebrations are quite fascinating across the boards. For example, Christmas and many other Christian holidays have preserved many interesting pagan traditions.  
I've also become much more interested because of this in exploring the holidays of the many multitudes of cultures I'm interested in, and so have resolved to research some of them more closely - the various ways Christmas is celebrated across the world, Diwali and Holi in India, Nowruz (Persian New Year) in Persia, Santa Lucia, Midsummer festivities in Scandinavia, Kalevala Day and Vappu in Finland, Þorrablót in Iceland, Seollal (Korean New Year) and Hangeullal (Hangul alphabet day) in Korea, so on and so forth (one book that I've been wanting to have a go at for a while now is "Around the World in 500 Festivals: The World's Most Spectacular Celebrations." :3)

From personal experience, one of the best memories I remember from my exchange in Egypt was celebrating Eid el-Adha with my host family. 
And one of the things that I was most disappointed about in my experience was that I never got to celebrate Ramadan, of course a very special time with a very distinctive atmosphere celebrated across the Muslim world - I arrived in Egypt a month after it ended in 2012, and left about three days before it began in 2013. 
One thing that actually comforted me quite a bit in the midst of my bout of intense homesickness at Christmastime in Egypt last year was that I had someone who understood where I was coming from quite well - my host brother Loay had spent a summer living and working in London a few years prior, and had struggled similarly to how I was feeling last December, because he had been gone in London for the entirety of Ramadan and had experienced similar homesickness. 
Needless to say, it was just comforting and reassuring to have someone around with whom missing a favorite holiday was a shared experience, who was able to relate well to how I was feeling, make me feel less alone, and was even motivated to partake in the tradition I was missing himself, just to make me feel better, in a very touching gesture of solidarity and compassion. 

That's about all I had in mind to share.

I hope you all enjoyed/were able to tolerate my little ramble about holidays and their cultural importance. 
Happy holidays to all, and Merry Christmas in particular to all celebrating today!

OK, I've gotta go catch my flight - over the Atlantic and through the Alps, to Grandmothers' house we go! 
(^Rain check on a possible post about the trip - as I'll be seeing Regina I suppose it's at least a bit relevant to my Egyptian experience, and since I've sort of rekindled this whole blogging thing, why not keep it up? ;) )
Some fascinating perspective. 

                                        ^One of my favorite wintery-holiday songs ever.

^This was my very first introduction to Pentatonix - I first heard it as the    background music in an exchange student's Christmas-themed YouTube video, and promptly downloaded this amazingness to my iPod. It reminds me a lot of Christmastime in Egypt, the duality of that struggle that I felt, and the holiday spirit I was able to find.

^Always a favorite.

^Ditto for this one.

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