To be brutally honest, I was not looking forward to the Christmas period this year. Despite the fact I was relaxed and settled into island life and the bookshop was buzzing with customers, the thought of spending my first Christmas so many miles away from my loved ones made me feel distinctly lacking in any festive spirit.
Up until this point, I’d hardly experienced any homesickness at all as I’d been so distracted by the change of pace, the new friends and the perks of spending my lunch breaks on the beach with a book or under the water. But as Christmas preparations began at Soneva, I prepared myself to feel a little blue on Christmas Day without all of the usual trimmings I was so used to back in the UK.
My mum is the kind of person that goes all out for Christmas. She loves planning parties, and for my twenty-first birthday threw me an extraordinary, over-the-top Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-themed surprise celebration, for which she carpeted the house in AstroTurf and visited every charity shop in the county to acquire hundreds of vintage tea cups and saucers. Christmas is her piece de resistance. In her most generous expression of love, mountains of food are prepared, presents are bought months in advance, Boxing Day has barely begun and she’s already planning festivities for the upcoming year. Every year is more extravagant than the last; it’s only a matter of time before I come home to find that the house has been turned into real-life snow globe, replete with reindeer.
As I imagined my brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins travelling to my parents’ house, with ‘Driving Home For Christmas’ their routine anthem playing, I felt a wrench of sorrow in my stomach. Not only did I feel so far away from the cosy merriment being broadcast over my friends and family’s social media pages – the Christmas markets, parties, carol singing, the Michael Buble Christmas album, an abundance of Yorkshire puddings, pigs in blankets, and my mum’s cheesy carrots (delicious, I promise) – but I was also missing one of the best expressions of community, familial love, and collaboration. Surely Christmas was just going to pass me by here? Even worse, what if missing my family and the festivities unbalanced my newfound island equilibrium?
I should have guessed that at Soneva I didn’t have to worry. The whole week leading up to Christmas was completely magical. On Christmas Eve, after a very busy afternoon selling stocking fillers in the shop, I headed to the Den to read ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas to a host of excited children – a Christmas Eve tradition taken from my own family that made me feel connected to them across the sea. Following this nostalgic pastime, I headed to the Christmas Eve party on the sandbank, where we sang carols to entertain the guests as the sun went down over the ocean.
Christmas Day passed by in a festive flash, like a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh. It began with a sunrise swim and a visit from St Nick himself, who arrived unconventionally (by speedboat) along with his two elves. After he handed out presents to each child, I took over the entertainment by reading Christmas stories on the beach and sharing in the children’s excitement at the arrival of the special day. Although I wasn’t with my own family, the palpable joy bursting from the families surrounding me intensified my own festive high and made me forget all about the distance between me and my loved ones.
New Year’s Eve came in quick succession as it always does. For most people, New Year’s Eve is famous for being anti-climactic. With the insane pressure of ‘having the best night’ thrust on every adult, the evening never quite meets expectations. Knowing I would be working up until midnight, I was fully prepared for this to be truer than ever. But for the whole day the island was abuzz with activity as we set up for a party that would transform every inch of jungle into a circus spectacle. The guests would begin their journey by watching the sunset from the sandbank, before returning to the island to walk its two-kilometre length, passing food stalls, musicians, games stations, and acrobats, before finally reaching a glorious banquet of food from all around the world, a whole room of puddings, and a live band who had everyone on their feet. The deck outside the bookshop was turned into a Vietnamese bao counter, colourful umbrellas filled with fairy lights hanging from the trees, creating a warm glow as a ventriloquist entertained families as they passed by. An acrobat was suspended fifteen feet in the air from a overhanging palm tree, playing the violin, as guests passed underneath, awestruck.
Wearing my traditional Maldivian sarong that was the evening’s uniform, I felt liberated and vibrantly alive as I danced to the extraordinary live band with colleagues and guests for the last few hours of the year, as they combined trumpets, bongos, and DJ decks in a completely unique, energetic, unforgettable set. When midnight came, we piled out onto the jetty together to watch a stunning (and eco-friendly) water display over the Indian Ocean that was far more spellbinding than most firework shows I have witnessed. It was a surreal occasion, and one that is not likely to be outshone by any future new year’s celebrations. It was quite simply the best party I have ever been to; an unexpected, and unexpectedly brilliant start to the new decade.
Photo Credits: Alicia Warner