A Guest Post by Belinda Arndt
A few thousand miles from home, I was being seduced by the smell of mulled wine and roasted nuts.
My strong feelings might have been influenced a bit by the espresso martini I’d been sipping. Regardless, the smell incited in me warm memories of holidays past, and I found myself longing for the magic of Christmas. It was a feeling that I had buried so deeply that I was startled to find it suddenly bubbling to the surface in this foreign place.
It was a feeling I wasn’t supposed to have anymore.
You see, last year I officially broke up with Christmas. It was a clean break, a “no looking back” kind of thing, like the lyrics to a Taylor Swift song, and I knew in my heart that we would never be getting back together.
I broke up with Christmas because the magic was gone, the season seemingly anything but “the most wonderful time of the year.” It was around the holidays that my mother first became ill, and I found the bright cheerful lights of my childhood had been replaced with the sickly yellow glow of hospital hallways. Instead of the cheerful carols of my memories, I was listening to the incessant din of fluid pumps beeping. Rather than putting up Christmas decorations, I was getting a crash course in medicine and hospital protocols. Perhaps the most painful of all was that while I was holed up in a hospital for the holidays, the rest of my family was enjoying a big Christmas meal and no one even thought to bring left-overs. My Christmas dinner that year consisted of a bag of chips, two cheese sticks, and a beer from Sheets.
As I sat down to my meager meal, I thought of Christmas’ past and realized that they really weren’t all they were chocked up to be. Holidays in my family generally tend to culminate in unnecessary drama, drunken yelling, and immature acts of violence. I'd never really felt like I belonged, had always felt like my family was faking a togetherness that didn't exist. We all played our roles, pretending for appearance's sake. Where was the real holiday cheer that every other family seemed to have?
“F**k Christmas” I thought as I munched on a stale potato chip. A nurse walking by stared at me, startled, and I realized that I’d spoken out loud.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s a dark time of year, and not only because the days are short and cold. We all have our demons, and they have a tendency to surface just as the Christmas lights turn on and the carols start playing. Some of us might have family issues. Others might not have any family at all. Some are struggling financially and can’t afford to buy the presents on Santa’s list. Some are single, lonely, and pressured to find the right partner “before it’s too late!” Classic Hallmark movie scenarios, often without the happy endings.
The truth is, the holidays are really hard.
And so this year, as I was planning a trip to London shortly before the holidays, my friend asked me what I wanted to see. I was surprised by the first answer that came out of my mouth.
“I want to experience a European Christmas Market!”
I thought that I’d put Christmas behind me once and for all, but it’s hard to make a clean break with someone you’re still secretly in love with. And that is what I was, and always have been. Despite the heartbreaks, and the disappointments, and the frustrations, I was still head over heels in love with the holidays. I was in love with the magic. The decorating, the twinkling lights, the snow, the feeling that maybe Santa really does exist. Despite my cynical attitude, I really hadn’t given up entirely.
My friend and I googled London Christmas Markets, but found that all of them were opening a day or two after my scheduled visit.
What I felt in that moment was relief. Ok, I thought. I’m “saved” from Christmas for another year.
And then my friend and I made plans to go to Copenhagen.
We would travel there there from London for a weekend, a quick trip from Friday night to Sunday afternoon. We could even fit Sweden in, since it’s only a 30 minute train ride away. A perfect getaway!
My friend and I checked into our hotel in Copenhagen and set out wandering the streets, absorbing all of the new sounds and sights and feeling that familiar “travel high” one gets when being in a new place for the first time. It was like a calmer version of New York City. We stopped by Balderdash, a cozy bar nestled in the heart of old town, for a quick drink before heading out to wander the streets a bit more.
And that is when we stumbled across the Christmas market.
I stopped in my tracks, shocked by what we had stumbled across. I felt my eyes come alive at the sight of the brightly lit reindeer standing by Santa’s sleigh. The smell of hot wine and roasting nuts wafted through the air. The stands we passed, built like barns, were filled with handmade treasures — everything from glass ornaments to rolling pins with fun designs to socks and chocolates.
It was nearing closing time, but we managed to stop by a stand selling warm beverages and I ordered a hot toddy. It was something I hadn’t tasted in a long time, a childhood drink I used to get whenever I was sick. Gotta love those old German recipes for fighting colds! The taste brought me back to warm nights, tucked under cozy blankets, and and the feeling of feeling safe and cared for.
We continued wandering about and found a bench along the canal to sit and sip our drinks.
As I stared out over the water, I felt that Christmas magic begin to seep back into the weary parts of my soul.
The next night, we decided to grab some drinks by the famous Danish houses along the canal. Wandering around the houses, we came across another Christmas market, this one at least five times bigger than the one from the night before, and nowhere near closing time.
The magic of Christmas was there, everywhere I turned.
It was amongst the hustle and bustle of people buying gifts and taking photographs with the lights. It was in the stands that sold unique children’s toys, craft beers, and wooden relics from Ukraine. It was in the hot chocolate spiked with a bit of Bailey’s that warmed our bodies and our souls.
Something in me softened, and in that one precious moment I found myself believing in Christmas once again.
For those of you who have a complicated relationship with the holiday season, know that hope is not lost. I encourage you to search for something that will bring the magic back into your life — whether it’s baking cookies, watching your favorite Christmas movie, or exploring a place you’ve never been and witnessing the holiday through a new lens.
Sometimes all it takes is the smell of mulled wine and roasted nuts to bring the magic back.
Belinda Arndt is a solo traveler and adventurer based outside of Washington DC. While traveling throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States, she has discovered that everywhere she goes there is a story to tell. Check out her blog Wandering Bel to hear more about her crazy travel adventures -- like the time she got a moth stuck in her ear outside of Zion National Park, or that other time when she was detained at the Canadian border. Life is always interesting when you're wandering with Bel!