I have a nutcracker in my house in America that matches the one from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. As a child I spent many Christmas’ seeing the Nutcracker Ballet at nearby city theatre. I was a total romantic and imaginative child and Christmas for me was magical. It was pretending in Santa and elves and fawns and magical nutcrackers and a place called Toyland. I watched the BBC version of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe along with a whole host of other Christmas films throughout December that only seemed to spur on my idea that it there was fairy dust in the air. My year round imagination for the fantastic was given even more room to grow at Christmas.
Christmas eve was usually spent with one of my mom’s sisters and her family. Christmas day was and is still spent with my dad’s side of the family in what can only be known as a fun and food filled day full of chaos with a lot of people in their house, many of whom aren’t even relatives but are still family.
There have been additions and subtractions to this as my brother has married and my cousins have married and Christmas Eve is now spent with my brothers’ in laws and my parents and the kids. But the Christmas day is still much the same.
Except for me, the expat. Eleven Christmas’ ago I spent my first Christmas abroad and have spent many more since then. I left my home and family and country for a calling and an idea that God wanted me here and not there and there are consequences to that. Cost means traveling home for Christmas is a luxury on occasion. Christmas over the years has been different. It has been traumatic at times, it has been sad and lonely many times, and yet it has also had little moments for learning and grace and gratitude.
All families are embarrassing, broken, messy, have some weird habits or a weird family member they don’t really want the outside world to see. Having been with so many different families sprinkled over 6 of the last 11 Christmas’ I have come to know from my expertise data gathering that this is normal. It has helped me learn to accept people more and lower my expectations a bit. I think it has made me relax around my family more as well. It has been a great expectation check should I ever get married and grafted into someone else’s family. We are all a bit messy, all a bit weird, and Christmas with people is a great time to see that. It has pushed me from the pendulum of idealizing or being embarrassed about mine.
God has graced me through people taking me in. I think of my friend’s soon to be in-laws 6 years ago who she was just getting to know a month after moving south and a few weeks after engagement who welcomed me to join all their family activities even though it may have been an easier or more special time for them to get to know their new almost daughter in law without me there. That family has communicated precious things to me over the years since I stayed with them.
The girls I have discipled who have brought me home to families I didn’t know but they offered me their home and lives and were not bothered when I went off to spend two hours on the phone with my family on Christmas day. There was the 20 year old international student little sister friend who moved in with me for a week my traumatic tearful Christmas because I thought I’d be on my own. Christmas wasn’t celebrated where she was from but she was determined for me to have a good Christmas. There were the friends who’s son had a serious surgery whilst out of the country on holiday and they called me Christmas Eve night as they arrived home to see if I could join them the next day so I had a family to spend Christmas with. A lot of the most sad or painful moments have still had grace lavished on them with peoples extension of friendship to me.
Taking in strangers or friends requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Your extended family are nuts. Grandma drinks until she gets embarrassing. Your mother will burn the turkey… every year. Your dad will tell really embarrassing jokes the whole time. Your children will throw tantrums and be ungrateful for Christmas presents. Or they will fight over orange balloons all week and ignore their Christmas presents like my nephews did last year. Your family has been in a feud for 10 years and by inviting your friend in, they are now going to be privy to your deep family sins and embarrassments. We all have them. As the expat who has gotten to sit in on other family’s embarrassments, thank you. I’d rather be embarrassed with you then spend a week on my own. It has reminded me that we are all a bit messy and all have those family members and all are in need of grace.
Christmas doesn’t have to be stressful. Lack of consistency in Christmas, in relationships, in knowing where I will be, and in seeing many different families has helped me conclude that I think Christmas doesn’t have to be the stressful time that we make it. Actually for me, the inconsistency of relationships at Christmas is stressful. For you it might be the big family fight that happens every year. We cannot control people, our feelings of pain or loneliness, or the sin that we sometimes walk into that is caused by others. Those things will be stressful or painful. But a lot of what goes into making this time of year stressful is expectations and “have to” and how I respond to people and those elements I can work on.
You don’t have to decorate the house so much you are in a tizzy of stress. Some years I have a tree. Some years I don’t. This year, I haven’t been feeling myself so I cancelled a massive Christmas party I was supposed to be hosting. That’s okay. Sometimes I think we are our own worst enemies with expectations. Just kill them and enjoy people and the day as it comes. Christmas is about Jesus so I’d rather spend more time thinking quietly about him than needing to live up to invisible expectations of what I need to do every day of December.
There is nothing like never having a consistent Christmas or knowing who you will be spending Christmas with to create longings for a family of your own. Will I even have someone to spend Christmas with?! That has come up at least one painful year quite dramatically, but every year, it is always a fear. A best friend who won’t move away, go home to their family and leave you behind for two weeks, who you can create a Christmas with or do the rotation between your families, is a huge desire for me. Single people often long to be married. Yet bouncing inconsistent Christmas’ have created deeper more heartfelt longings the more I have spent Christmas with a different family on every corner of Britain’s shores the last 10 years. I long to be married to be my best friend and to know from now on, whatever happens, wherever we go, Christmas is with you.