Christmas in South Africa was always hot. Kids gathered around the tree, sunburns still stinging. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” pounding hopefully out over the radio. Our tree was always a live one and the years we gathered at Ouma and Oupa’s house in the Cape they’d use the old fashioned candle clips – attaching live candles with their drippy red and white wax to the fresh branches. No one thought it odd.

There were crackers for pulling before the big meal, kids vying for the little plastic prizes that flew out of them as we pulled them apart. Gammon or lamb were the main course and tea, there was always lots of tea afterwards. Dessert included surprises baked right into it – lots of coins wrapped up in silver foil for kids to discover as they bit into the juicy fruit cake.

So much British and Dutch still passed down through accents and traditions and the food.

No snow till my first year in the States. The year dad couldn’t afford to fly me home for just a few weeks of Christmas break. The year I bought presents for the friends I was staying with and the brown paper bag ripped right there on the crosswalk in Beverly, MA as first flurries were scurrying all around me. The store clerk replaced the gifts of the crying girl.

I called dad collect. It was 2am his time. And he hugged me over the phone and laughed about the broken pieces and his accent was like so much warm tea.

It’s impossible to really love your home until you’ve left it.

Of all the traditions I’ve passed down to my kids, homesickness is certainly one of them.

Some years I’ve found myself frantically thumbing through magazines or blog posts trying to figure out which of the genius ideas I should incorporate into our traditions Stateside. We’ve tried a variety of Advent countdowns and usually end up missing many days and I turn guilty and start to resent the calendar.

I’ve pinned pictures of surprise crescent rolls to make and intended to pack Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes. For a while I was convinced that if we each had matching, monogrammed stockings pinned above the fireplace I would have delivered on Christmas. I stock up on the catalogs of charity gifts and mean to have my children sit down and circle the presents we’ll give to others this year. I insist I will only give them 3 gifts each.

They doodle on the pretty Christmas list paper I’ve printed out from someone’s website and end up in a laser tag fight that sends pillows flailing and the 18 month old hollering after them down the hallway. All I want is a mug of hot chocolate. Nothing fancy. Just the SwissMiss with marshmallows.

On Christmas Eve in South Africa we’d walk up the koppie behind our house. Dad would have his Bible. We’d all gather and drink something delicious and watch the sunset over the city in front of us. The dark thatch roof of the house a stage in front of it all. We might sing something. And the kids would take turns reading passages of the Christmas story.

Then we’d walk down into the house and feast and pull crackers and gather around the Christmas tree and pile of sparkling loot beneath it. There are many more kids than adults in that house. And many more skin colors than mine. English is often in the minority around that tree.

Family, a real tree, old decorations each loaded with meaning and ways to give gifts that bless others and are actually meaningful to my guys. I sip the hot chocolate. I lean back into those memories of home. I hear kids cackling down the hall. And I log out of pinterest.