Christmas when my brother and I were kids was traditional.
We would always wake up early to presents at the bottoms of our beds, tip toe downstairs to dig through the goodies in our stockings, make Mom and Dad breakfast to get them out of bed so we could open the presents around the tree, strung with cranberries and popcorn.
There would be snow.
Family would come over for dinner with Christmas crackers around an elaborately decorated table with my dad’s Christmas music in the background.
Since I moved to London almost seven years ago, if I don’t go back to New York, Christmas has varied.
One year, it was an orphan Christmas with a few other London friends who weren’t with family or didn’t celebrate the holiday.
Another year, friends with family in Mongolia, South Africa and Poland came with me on a five hour walk from London’s Southfields to Trafalgar Square to see an empty city.
It turned out to be less empty than we expected, but we still had fun.
Last year, Jorge and I packed our bags and hopped on a train up to Scotland.
We spent the holidays with his sister’s family, just outside of Edinburgh in Roslin Village, which is where all of the photos in this entry were taken.
Funny enough, it was my second visit to this wee village of about 1,820 people.
The first was in 2004, while I was studying abroad in London.
A few classmates and I took a 12 hour bus ride to Edinburgh and ventured in the dark from a second bus down a long dirt trail to the 14th Century Rosslyn Castle.
Built into the ruins is a house which we had rented out for a long weekend.
It was one of my favourite adventures, full of fond memories, so I was thrilled to be going back.
This time, we didn’t stay in a castle, but a house that was a bit less remote.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we ventured down that same trail though, toward the castle, the famous Rosslyn Chapel from The DiVinci Code and the stunning gorge which is great for hiking.
On one of the walks, we bumped into a woman wearing wellies.
She is part of the St Clair family who owns the castle and was excited to stop and talk about its long history.
We didn’t go into the castle this time, but I remember the rooms within its walls quite well.
There were guest books full of ghost stories as it is said to be haunted by “a sleeping lady who will one day awake and show the whereabouts of a fabulous treasure buried deep within its vaults. When this happens, the castle will again rise from its ruins.”
There was a fireplace, old candelabras, and red carpeting.
When we stayed there, no one else dared come with me, but I took a flashlight and ventured down into the depths of the castle.
There were four stories of cobwebbed stone dungeons, bit of old newspapers and butterfly wings on the ground, overturned dusty furniture and plenty of strange noises.
Being there again brought on a sense of nostalgia and I thought back to those four months on a study abroad program that ultimately changed my life, not least because I have now spent nearly seven years of my life in London but also because I now work for the company with which I studied.
One day, Jorge and I pulled on our wellies and Christmas jumpers and went down to the gorge near the castle.
We spent hours walking, taking pictures, moving branches out of the path, stepping over puddles and just enjoying being lost without any obligations in the great outdoors.
I love the smell of the woods, of nature, of earth drenched in rain after a storm.
I appreciate it even more after living in the middle of a huge city where there’s the mingling scents of traffic pollution, fast food, bodies packed into public transport.
And then there’s the silence that reveal the sounds that are muffled in London: the rustle of leaves and branches in the breeze, the squidge of mud beneath your feet, chirping birds and scuttling squirrels.
Up near the castle is an old cemetery that sits on a hill.
It’s one of those slightly disheveled old places which you could explore for ages, wondering about the stories that are buried amongst the bodies, trying to decipher the worn out dates on the gravestones.
Nearby is the famous Rosslyn Chapel.
It was closed over Christmas so we didn’t go in, but it was given a 16 year restoration for multi-million pounds, so there’s some effort going into its conservation.
At some point on our hike through the glen, we came to a small footbridge crossing a stream.
We stood there for a while, watching the water, feeling a million miles away from London.
When we started to get a bit cold, we started to head back up to the top of the gorge.
The trail led us down to the back of the castle and we walked on toward the village.
The sun was starting to set, casting a lovely yellow gleam on the leftover Autumn leaves.
It shimmered in mud puddles and made the tops of bare trees glow.
To warm up, we stopped for tea in one of the approximately two pubs.
It was traditional, cozy and warm, full of Christmas baubles and tinsel.
On the way back, we stopped to play on a zip line in an empty playground.
Heading to Tenerife and then La Gomera in Spain’s Canary Islands in a few weeks, this year I will celebrate my first Christmas in a warm country.
What are your Christmas plans this year? Traditional or something different?