Learning to Love Christmas – Pavle (Serbia)

Christmas. What does the word signify for you? What memories does it bring out? And how do you feel, here and now, in Tartu, Estonia, far away from home – or, if you’re any lucky, maybe on your way home? What do you feel when you see the big Raekoja Christmas tree when you are faced with the shine of festive lights, and the bitter coldness with the warmth inside a mulled wine cup?

I used to hate Christmas with such passion that you might call it religious fervor, which, come to think of it, suits the occasion just fine. Something just irked me about all the saccharine decorations, about the forcefully jolly mood and capitalist wallet deathtraps in every shop window, about the way everyone looked happy to celebrate this one day of the year as it was something special, something significant. I wondered – why not celebrate every day? (Yeah, I was that kind of kid) But as I grew older – not that I’m particularly old now, mind you, no matter how much of a grandfatherly figure I try to pose as – I started appreciating this peculiar day more and more. 

 And to think that it all started with music. 

Some time ago, a dear friend of mine began aggressively harassing our group of friends with an unending onslaught of Christmas classics, from Dean Martin, through Michael Buble, to Mariah Carey. And it was annoying at first, but as seasons passed, it turned from something of a recurring joke to an actual tradition. Whenever we meet during the wintertime – be it Christmas or New Years’ or this uniquely Serbian thing called Slava – we always dived fully into the Christmas spirit by playing the music that best brings it to life. I loved sharing every single moment with my friends during this period (to say that we spent the time is somewhat of a misnomer).

Years passed but the music stayed constant. What I didn’t realise at the time was that the company was a constant too. This year, though, things will be different, and not just because I found myself far away, in a different country. COVID-19, this thing that rose almost to the level of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named in recent times, but seems to be the only thing we can actually talk about, muscled its way into our lives and pretty much made scrambled eggs of it.

Still, even though I realise that me spending Christmas with people I love and miss most is probably not going to happen, I’m already fully immersed in the Christmas spirit by endlessly playing the aforementioned music (though this year, I tend to listen more to a bit gloomier, atmospheric Christmas gems; here’s an honest recommendation, check it out). And that, naturally, led me to think about why exactly I keep doing this. Why am I still obsessed with this period, when it looks like it’ll only bring a world of hurt this year-round? That’s how I found myself replaying memories in my head, all the good times that I had, that we had. And I realised that Christmas might not really be about that exact moment when you are in it. It can even feel oppressive at times, come to think of it, a bit like a trap. Sure, mulled wine and good food (yes, I really love mulled wine), board games, and nice chats can help you enjoy it, but the Christmases (or Christmasi) I remember always shined brightest as a time of reflection, inhabited by all sorts of afterthoughts and remembrances. Talking about all the days in the previous years we had shared with the persons I shared them with, all the times we had laughed and cried and argued, philosophised endlessly, or just stared into the night sky without a single word on our minds. It’s rather like those year-end top ten lists – time to celebrate and give thanks for everything that had this extraordinarily small probability of happening yet still somehow did.

Walking through the streets in these solipsistic moods led me to the realisation that there are hundreds of people like me, here in Tartu. Maybe even you that are reading this right now. We’re all in this together, in a way. And even if COVID-19 stops us from using the opportunity that we earned by coming here, to Estonia, to celebrate with new friends and share our hopes and promises with them, I think things will be alright. 

Christmas streets of Tartu. Photo credit: Kateryna Kubrak

The world is as old as we are and our past is always there to lend us support and to promise us a future. There are unbreakable strings among us and if no wind can shake them loose, how can any type of geographical distance? Someone is thinking of you, your friends, your families, your lovers. And you’re not alone, even if you are on your own. Personally, I think there is something hiding in that small nugget of wisdom rather worth celebrating.

With that said, take care and stay safe. ISA loves you and wishes you a gentle, kind Christmas, and – who knows? – maybe even some snow.

Snow over the library roof. Photo credit: Pavle Ramah