When Olivia turned one, it’s safe to say we went overboard. There was a hot air balloon theme, handmade decorations, antipasti up to our eyeballs and a showstopper cake from the restaurant’s pastry chef, worthy of a Bake Off trophy and involving a giant sugar work number one. It looked amazing. We were broken. She doesn’t remember a thing.
Every year, from birthdays to Christmas, we promise to do it simply. And we try. Apart from, you know, the blinis for breakfast and the homemade advent calendar and the inevitable bloody turkey and the overambitious craft activities. Last year, however, was different.
Don’t get us wrong, we love a tradition in our family. But there’s something hugely liberating about packing your bags and going to a place where nobody really cares about Christmas. Where there isn’t a set of mandatories of what has to happen when and where and how. Because, let’s face it, those unwritten rules can really suck the spontaneity out of a day that’s supposed to be fun.
So we rewrote our family traditions. We kept the ones we liked and ditched the ones we didn’t.
Despite being in deeply Buddhist Chiang Mai for the festive season, we did want Christmas to feel like Christmas. Sucker for punishment that I am, I had made the advent calendar for Olivia, which was cobbled together from a bunch of hand-numbered envelopes on a pink coat hanger that we’d liberated from a hotel wardrobe. It was flat and therefore portable, starting on December the 1st in a ramshackle bungalow on Koh Phangan and hitting the 24th way up in the north of Thailand. It was rustic, yes, but filled with activities rather than random plastic crap for once. There were little scrawled vouchers that promised everything from hot chocolate chats to cartwheel lessons on the beach to a popcorn-fuelled Mrs Doubtfire night.
To transform our Northern Thai living room for Santa, we raided a local art supplies shop and made our own decorations. But they weren’t just sparkly shapes that shed glitter every time you move. Olivia made a garland of ‘fancy elephants’ to remember the costumed creatures of Kandy in central Sri Lanka. She made a travel-themed string of aeroplanes and clouds with creepy faces. We bought tiny tuk-tuk key rings and hung them on the tree as ornaments. It was Christmas, but seen through our new, nomadic, wide open eyes.
Then, of course, there was the food. Did we pull our usual trick and spend hours in the kitchen preparing the annual feast? Um, no. We went to our friends’ restaurant and ate exactly what we wanted in a terracotta garden strewn with fairy lights. In our case, this meant a pizza for the kids, a Pad Thai for me, and an entire braised pork knuckle for Lori. Random, yes. But there was nobody around to judge. We did exactly what we felt like, for us and no one else.
When the Italian Befana visited on the 6th of January, Olivia —who had apparently behaved— found the requisite sweets in her sock, while River, too young at eleven months for such a sugar rush, got a little helicopter toy. It was a gesture, nothing special, we thought. Wrong. He fell in love with it and it’s still high on his list of favourite playthings.
Olivia’s birthday started in our rented Chiang Mai apartment, conventionally enough. She’d made her own unicorn decorations, and we’d covered the place in balloons. But this time, we didn’t spend weeks planning or juggling invitations, filling party bags or crying over flat cakes. We decided what to do on the morning itself, and spent the afternoon in Art In Paradise, a gallery full of painted optical illusions for us to climb into and interact with. So our daughter spent her birthday wrestling crocodiles, deep sea diving, climbing the walls, meeting giant kittens and riding paper aeroplanes over cities at night. Which isn’t bad going when you’re five.
River, the littlest wanderer, turned one in Hoi An, Vietnam. Having failed to get his actual present on time, we got him a temporary one, the simplest of wind-up ducks. He celebrated his big day by taking his first proper steps towards us, having a very splashy bath with his sister and falling in love with his new toy. That night, we wandered the lantern-strung streets of the city, headed out onto the water in a rowing boat and marked his first year by each of us making a wish for him. We floated our candlelit lantern ‘wishes’ out onto the river, bobbing along with the thousands of others. It was the most romantic birthday I think I’ve ever seen, and duck aside, none of it was material.
Now here’s the thing. Presents for kids can be overwhelming. Since ours were born, we’ve been showered with gifts, which is amazing, but we’ve always felt it was too much. Beautiful clothes they’d wear about twice. And so many toys that none got any real attention. But with very limited suitcase space and one of the main points of our trip being that experiences are more important than stuff, the change we’d been craving came.
If anyone insisted on presents while we were away, we asked for gifts that took little to no space, from bedtime stories to tiny objects to multitasking toys to experiences they would never forget. So our kids finally got the minimal gifts we’d failed at when we had a house to fill. And they didn’t miss a thing.
PERFECT GIFTS FOR TRAVELLING KIDS
(or parents who don’t want to drown in crap they don’t need)
Message in a bottle The best leaving gift we received, hands down. Go somewhere great, write a brilliant message, throw it out to sea and wait to see who finds it. Ours bobbed away on the Mekong Delta.
Viking toys Tiny, safe, solid and well-designed toys for babies.
Story Cubes A brilliant set of picture dice. Throw them and make a different story every time.
Stacking cups. They build. They work in the bath. They make sandcastles. Win win.
Oh, the Places We’ll Go Dr Seuss’ love letter to young adventurers everywhere.
Fabric pencil case Beautiful roll-up pencil cases to take out for the day to combat restaurant boredom for older kids.
A day with elephants. Or rabbits. Or whatever. Buy them a day they’ll remember rather than a toy they’ll abandon in a drawer.
Tickets Hunt down some culture that’s a tonne of fun for kids.
Kindle or iBooks voucher Bedtime stories on tap, wherever you are.
App Store vouchers Takes up zero suitcase and endless hours (we love Toca Boca, Nosey Crow and Loopimal but we’re probably horribly out of date)
Lottie A small doll with realistic little girl proportions and proper outfits, from puddle jumping waterproofs to archeologist uniforms. The opposite of Barbie.
Balloons Minimal space, maximum excitement, occasional drama. Perfect.