Three writers take a trip down memory lane to share their most unforgettable Christmases…


Once upon a time in the Dominican Republic, Sarah Garden (pictured above) gained a big brother

I was nine years old when I first met my stepbrother, Marc. My dad had just bought me Five’s latest album and I was clutching it tightly in my hands as I walked into his room, with my brother James by my side. Marc, who was 14 at the time, was sitting at his computer listening to Eminem. We had nothing in common.

There’s only a year separating James and I, so as Christmas and family holidays came and went, we remained close sidekicks. Looking back, that must have been difficult for Marc – sure, we got on, but the age gap was too big for us to fully relate to each other.

Shortly after my 15th birthday, my dad and stepmum announced that we’d be forfeiting the festive season for a tropical retreat to the Dominican Republic. It started out like any other holiday for the first few days – plenty of sunbathing, beach activities and lovely evening meals. It was a few years since our last holiday, and the age gap with Marc seemed to matter less. So when Christmas Eve arrived, and our parents went to bed early, the three of us decided to stay up.

We were given one instruction – don’t leave the hotel complex. Being teenagers, an hour later we’d befriended two boys from Panama, whom we promptly nicknamed the ‘Pana-maniacs’, and come up with an amazing idea to go AWOL. By 11pm we were all piling into a disco, rumoured to contain local mobsters. It was hot, sweaty and most likely extremely dangerous. We were beside ourselves with delight.

We welcomed in Christmas Day throwing ridiculous shapes on an old ’70s style disco floor, and went wild when the DJ made a special shout-out. When we returned to the hotel the Panama boys went to bed, but we were too hyper to sleep. I remember feeling giddy with excitement as we ran around playing hide and seek. It was only when the sun began to light up our hiding places that we decided it was time to get some rest.

The remainder of the holiday all blends together in my memory. What I do know is that I laughed. A lot. We made friends with people who didn’t know we were stepsiblings – to them, we were a trio. New Year came and went with Oasis classics blasting, our arms wrapped around each other.

It’s been ten years since we flew home from the Dominican Republic, and my Dad turned around to see the boys strangling me with earphones. He loves to tell people that story – the moment he realised we were close enough to fight like family.

I don’t know who decided to drop the “step” first, it was too natural to discuss, but on that holiday Marc simply became our brother. Since then we’ve grown up together, and shared some of the most pivotal points in our lives. I’m beyond lucky to have not just one, but two big brothers, who are also my allies, best friends, and closest confidents.

They say you can’t choose your family, but on Christmas Eve, on a sweaty dance floor in Central America, we did.


Sean Train Frankfurt

Sean Williams gets frank about Frankfurt. It’s safe to say he’ll be avoiding it for future festive seasons

Frankfurt is not, despite the guidebooks, a winter wonderland. Its streets are not quaint and cobbled, its sights few and its skyline a drab, pencilled paean to German finance. Unlike southern Sudan, where I was supposed to spend Christmas three years ago, it is not the hottest place on Earth. Frankfurt is cold in December. Which is why, as we four rattled along –  myself, my now ex-girlfriend, her mother and younger sister – on an open-top bus tour of the city in sub-zero sleet, the faux smiles we shot each other could not hide our disappointment at being in Frankfurt for Christmas – or with each other.

Do not get me wrong: there is little to complain about spending Christmas with your loved ones in a strange land. And sorry Frankfurters, if I’m doing your home a disservice. But as that old bus wheezed across another spine-twisting speed bump and our guide pointed out the cobalt, Corbusian headquarters of Deutsche Bank, all was not well.

My girlfriend and I were on rocky terms as it was, owing to transgressions beyond the breadth of this scene. By winter’s end we’d go our separate ways. Her mother, a stout, suburban queen who cared little for tight jeans or bad manners, loathed the ground I trod and made no effort to hide it. And her sister – well, we had a nonaggression pact consisting mostly of her ignoring everyone to play Angry Birds.

The trip to Sudan, to visit my girlfriend’s father in Khartoum where he worked pumping valleys of crude from the Red Sea, would be a fresh start, light years from London and even more from the tears and tedium that a doomed, quasi-long distance relationship was handing us both. And so we placed our faith in a PA named Raheem, who stamped our passports in a country that no longer officially exists.

Christmas Eve we’d buggy to the sand-tousled pyramids of Meroë, ancient ruins that drifted off into the Sahara like desperate stone nomads. There we’d sleep, in tents, for three days while everyone back home drank and ate and huddled away from the bad English weather. What fools they’d seem, I thought, as we’d soak up culture and scoff down Sudanese delicacies.

Which made it all the worse that here we were, one connecting flight, three dud visas (thanks Raheem) and the most awkward hotel stay ever, on a double-decker relic in central Germany, being told something about the EU by a woman who was, annoyingly, dressed well for the frozen Frankfurter ‘wetter’. Unsurprisingly our bags weren’t packed with North Face jackets. But we went anyway. Something had to break the awful hotel lobby silence.

That night my girlfriend and I ditched her kin and found some American GIs who, for a few, sotted hours, lifted our angst. Ironically I now live in Germany, with a wife whom, I’m pleased to say, loathes me on far fewer occasions. Though I’ll still avoid it this Christmas. At the very least I’ll put on a good sweater.



Aoife Stuart-Madge will never abandon her family over the Christmas period again

Any Dubaiites who have ever watched the romantic comedy Four Christmases (or Anywhere But Home to give it its UAE title), will understand the appeal of the Selfish Christmas. In the film, a high-flying couple, Brad and Kate – played by Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon – decide to avoid spending the holidays with their neurotic, unhinged relatives, and take themselves off for a sun-soaked romantic vacation to Fiji instead. Genius, right? My husband Phil and I were so inspired that we vowed to have our own Selfish Christmas one year.

We told a little white lie to our respective families, claiming we couldn’t get enough time off work to fly home to the UK from Dubai. Instead, we booked ourselves in at the luxe Shangri-La, Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, Oman for a lazy week spent eating, drinking and sunbathing. Before you judge us for being utterly self-centred, let me give you a bit of background: Phil is English and I am from Northern Ireland. Our festive holidays up until that point usually entailed an expensive flight home from the UAE followed by a whirl of domestic flights as we rushed around trying to see my family in Belfast for Christmas and his family in London for New Year. Not exactly conducive to a relaxing break – especially when you factor family neurosis into the equation.

In my big Irish family everyone speaks on top of each other and you have to scream just to be heard. At Christmas, when they are not yelling (and wrestling to the death for the remote), they are usually singing Irish ditties at top volume – and not always the same song at the same time. My family home is such a noisy, overwhelming place to be that Phil actually got a nosebleed the first time he visited. To make matters worse, as soon as Phil passes the threshold, my sisters crack out the family albums to show him embarrassing snaps of my frizzy-hair-and-train-track-braces era hoping to rid him of any misconceptions that I might actually be the polished, sophisticated magazine editor I had fooled him into thinking I was when we first met in Dubai.

So you can understand why I was sold on the notion of a peaceful, relaxing holiday. As for Phil, he was just happy to skip the nosebleeds and freezing UK weather for some R&R in the sun. Unfortunately, by lunchtime on Christmas Day the plan had completely backfired. While the hotel was amazing and the buffet meal outstanding, there were more than a few things missing. For starters, there was none of my dad’s famous home-made tipple to get the party started (in fact, the restaurant was dry until 4pm) and without my sisters bickering in my ears and my dad singing Fairytale Of New York with his eyes closed, it was just a little, well, quiet. We were so disheartened that after lunch, we skipped the pool and snuck upstairs to our room to watch Christmas movies in an attempt to replicate that festive feeling. But without my brother there to give me a dead arm and grab the remote from my grasp, it was just not the same. We ended up spending most of the day eating Pringles from the mini bar and Skype chatting with my family to see what we were missing out on. Unsurprisingly, we’ve been putting up with our families every Christmas since then.