🎄 Christmas jumpers, imbuljuta tal- Qastan and the midnight mass

In the coming days, everyone around you will seem a tad more pleasant than usual. Even work will feel more tolerable when compared to the rest of the year. It’s a time when everything tends to sound and look better; especially if you’re an avid Christmas fan.

It’s one week until Christmas and, despite all that has been going on, the air is buzzing with cheer. Or perhaps it’s just me and my incessant obsession with this holiday.  On December first, we open the first tiny window of our advent calendar, overload our Spotify accounts with Christmas music, and start thinking of showering the fronts of our homes with blinking decorative lights (and sometimes even overdoing it).  All this sets the tone for the upcoming month and puts our little customs into motion.

Traditions are comforting, nice even. They’re like a familiar smell you randomly come across on a given day that takes you back to your childhood days. The nostalgic memories of Christmas past, if you will. Do you sometimes find yourself missing sitting cozily on the couch, your hands cupped around a warm mug of imbuljuta tal-Qastan your grandma just made whilst munching on some fresh out-of-the-oven mince pies on Christmas eve?

As a child, I used to spend every Christmas Eve at my grandma’s with the rest of the family. After that, we attended the Midnight mass and as children, tried hard not to snooze off in the dim lights during the extremely long sermon of the child. I loved every second of Christmas eve. Loved – because as we grew older, that little family tradition of ours dissipated.

Every family has its own traditions which inevitably change with the passage of time. Children grow up, move out, embark on their own journeys and create their own new thing. Still, change brings about the birth of new traditions which can be just as exciting.

When compared to other countries and given that no distance is great on this little island of ours, we remain close to our families and not just in physical proximity. To date, we tend to celebrate this day with our closest relatives and try to make up for lost time with friends. That is probably one of the reasons why we send out a bazillion greeting cards to everyone we have ever known in December.

Another thing that always fascinated me as a child – probably because of the Home Alone movies I used to watch – was the Christmas tree. I remembered being in awe of how grand it stood with gifts piled neatly underneath it. Back then, I also remember my mother pointing out that the Christmas tree hadn’t always been part of our tradition. Most Maltese catholic families make the crib and baby Jesus as the main centerpieces during the festive season to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas; the birth of Christ. Some would even go on to argue that no crib is complete without the decorative Gulbiena (vetches). Growing the plant in darkness was a task, that as kids, we took to heart. We checked on it every single day to the point of feeling proudly triumphant upon seeing its stringy white shoots sprouting from its watered cotton bed.

Setting up the Christmas tree, however, is now a tradition well embedded in the Maltese culture. We spend hours decorating our homes, which although sometimes we do so excessively, it still makes up for good family quality time. Something which lately, and admittedly, we seem to be lacking. It’s not the first time I’ve been to a café and sitting nearby is a family of four completely lost in four different digital worlds.

The spirit of Christmas, less the commercial hype, is associated with acts of giving, selflessness, and kindness. In this excessively consumeristic reality of ours, it would not be the first time you’d hear someone admitting that the true meaning of Christmas is lost and has now been replaced with all that is materialistic. However, and to date, for many locals, the Christmas season is not merely a frenzy period of gift shopping but rather, it’s more about being part of the communal experience. For instance, as kids, we never missed the children’s procession, singing and holding candle-lit paper lanterns as we roamed our village streets. This is something most towns and villages have been organising for years and still do.

Then on Christmas day, my family and I prepare lunch together and spend the day in each other’s company watching Christmas films and playing board games. Lunch on this day is a celebratory meal that takes time both to prepare and to eat. It usually involves a hearty three-course meal starting off with pasta or soup, turkey and roast potatoes plus a vegetable casserole (which used to be baked at the local bakery) undeniably followed by dessert, coffee, and liquour.  A couple of hours in, and tea, treacle rings, and mince pies are also served. Where food is concerned, traditions like these tend to stick around for quite a while on these islands.

It’s nice to have our own little traditions. Looking back, we reminiscence on childhood memories that we’re fond of. Looking ahead, a little change to what we’re used to doesn’t hurt either. Wearing funny Christmas jumpers, hanging Christmas stockings, exchanging gifts and indulging in Christmas inspired ginger lattes and cookies with friends and family, are seasonal traditions that make December special.

 

Featured on the Times of Malta Christmas Magazine, 2018

Charming #Bratislava & a quick trip to #Vienna

Christmas day, I was in bed with a fever. Two days later, I was travelling to Bratislava, Slovakia. Call me crazy but looking back, I’d do it all over again.

The outbound flight was the worst part. Have you ever been sick or even had nasal congestion on board a plane? It just gets worse. I used to work as a flight attendant with a local airline some years back, so I got used to everything on board. But ear pain is one thing that scares me to date.

For the whole duration of our mini-vacation, warm water with lemon and honey became my best friend. Thankfully, soup was on every menu; it seemed to be a hot item (an unintentional pun) in the city. So I detoxed for a couple of days with soup and Bratislavan ox-tail broth; which is extremely good even though it doesn’t sound appetizing. Not your usual holiday food where you stuff mouth with brioches and pastries at breakfast and get your hands on local sweets and chocolates every time you get. I’m a sweet tooth, so those were the things I missed the most.

BUT, the fresh air did me good. Despite the icy cold weather, I felt better each time I stepped outside. A couple of days later, I was almost as good as new (almost).

Bratislava. To be completely honest, it was never really on my travel list. But it should be on yours. Two days, I think, are all that you need. Compared to other cities, it’s small. You can easily walk around the centre.

Plus, if you’re a coffee lover, you’re in for a treat. The city is littered with quaint little cake shops and the prices are not expensive (unlike Vienna).

I also visited Devín Castle; which is less than 40 mins away by bus (Bus 28) from the city centre. It’s really easy to get there and if you appreciate history and natural beauty, it’s worth the visit.

After roaming around Bratislava for two days, we hopped on the train to Vienna. It’s just an hour away but you can spot the difference. It’s busier. The streets, the squares, the shops. Everywhere.

Usually, I do a little research before travelling somewhere. But both places being in Europe and the hectic month that was December, I didn’t have the time. For a change, it was nice to just go out and about without a care in the world. We googled the best places to visit whilst at the hotel in the evening and that was it.

Cafés in Vienna are quite the thing as well. They really do love their coffee. It’s quite the culture. They also have their own version of a cappuccino – Melange.

But alas, all the coffee shops had endless queues. Everywhere we went was packed. Visiting during peak season doesn’t help. Shamefully, the only place where we managed to find two available seats (literally just two seats) was McCafe. I hate myself for writing this and even more for going in but it was windy, raining and freezing cold. I couldn’t feel my extremities any longer, so we had to get inside, somewhere. And that, unfortunately, was the last resort.

The following day we encountered the same problem. Only this time with restaurants. But, we found, and totally by chance too, this amazingly good Hummus bar in the inner city. We had the best snack there 👌 👇

Tripadvisor: https://goo.gl/kgbuHX

Maybe that picture doesn’t give the place enough credit. You just have to take my word for it.

One of the many reasons I loved spending the last days of the year in Vienna were the markets. Having researched only a little during our stay, I came across a site stating that Christmas markets open to the public on 23 November until 26 December. What I didn’t know was that they also have New Year’s eve markets. Oh, the goodness! Sad thing though, I couldn’t try everything.

But what I did do, was enjoying a nice mug of hot chocolate in that cold weather whilst roaming around the palace. It was heavenly.

On a side note: It’s better to return the mug to the stall (they refund you for it) if you don’t want it as a keepsake. Otherwise, you’ll end up like I did, awkwardly holding a chocolate-stained mug in hand around the city, underground stations and on trains. Or else, carry a bigger bag (didn’t fit in my small one)!

Until next time, Amanda x

Christmas: Staying vs. Leaving

Celebrating Christmas means different things to different people. For most, it’s the right opportunity to spend time with their loved ones. Where I come from, Christmas is the pure definition of family time. The first time I suggested travelling during the holidays, the air went still at home. 

If you come from a family who never missed one single family Christmas gathering, I believe you can easily relate.

The option of travelling against staying at home during the holidays is a constant internal battle. It’s something we start debating once we realise that summer is almost over and we still need to plan out our remaining leave days […]

New article @timesofmalta

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[Christmas Supplement, 2 December 2018]