Whenever I feel homesick, I find that my mind drifts to those things that have evolved into family traditions over time. This past winter vacation was no different, and although the childish glee of Christmas has frosted over for me, December is still a month enriched with small habits and special meals, each embedded with sentimental value. And so, though I was in Oxford for the entirety of this vacation, images from my childhood wove their way in and out of my mind: the twinkling of lights reflected in windows and the scent of silky onions, poking out from steaming trays of roast potatoes, inspiring my own Christmas dinner. Spending this winter vacation away from home, I considered what parts of Christmas I feel are the most essential, and by reworking old traditions and fashioning new ones for myself, I developed an antidote to this particular brand of sensory homesickness.
Vac is a time prescribed for rest. With hours melting away like butter in a pan, and days punctuated only by Netflix’s “Are you still watching?” messages, I couldn’t be further from the structure or schedules that term thrusts upon me. This psychological shift is, however, usually accompanied by a geographical counterpart, with all the components of my university life hastily packed away into bags and shoved into a car – except, with tests coming back positive back home, this time was different. At the end of 8th week, however, I was optimistic: the winter break – the one that always seems to whizz past, with only the 25th and 31st as markers of time – was my opportunity to fill in the blanks left by the term-time hullabaloo.
Growing up in a non-Christian household, I’ve long been accustomed to picking and choosing from popular traditions, especially during the festive season. As a result, I underlined panettone on this year’s festive shopping list, the Milanese sweet bread that my family ritually devour on Christmas Day, conscious of my cultural distance from religious activities that would simultaneously be taking place. In Oxford, I also bought my first real Christmas tree – I was previously committed to the practicality of the packaged plastic that I would adorn back home, but now, I can’t believe that nobody told me how good real pines smell.
One moment stands out to me when reflecting on my vac in Oxford. As I was walking down Turl Street, beckoned by golden streetlights bleeding into the fog of the inky afternoon, I realised the malleable nature of customs, and that I was forging my own traditions in this city day-by-day. It was a walk I’ve done countless times before (admittedly, out-of-breath as I race to the Classics Faculty), but it felt as though I’d discovered it anew as the cold wrapped around my fingers like a Christmas ribbon. I headed back to my room, furnished with an appreciation for this unique Christmastime and presents to tuck under the tree.
Spending unexpected time in Oxford outside of term has refreshed my relationship with the city. Now, passing the Rad Cam, I’m reminded of those who gathered (socially distanced) outside the enduring monument at midnight on New Year’s Eve. We took it in turns to cry out, “Happy New Year!” – to those here during term, those here all year round, and to those who can’t wait to return.