The first “Merry Christmas” text I got in the last twenty-four hours was from my old neighbour who is now back home in Saudi Arabia. My Muslim friend in a Muslim country probably didn’t have the culture around him to mark the day but he remembered and wished me a Christmas greeting.
I’m smirking to myself remembering their love of putting up a Christmas tree and the laughter we always heard through the thin shared walls of the apartment building. It’s been fun to have messages like that come in from around the world. Texts with friends in Iran, Germany, England and Northern Ireland, Canada and the US remind me of the global kind of life I belong to.
I wasn’t always home when I got those kinda messages from my worldwide friendships.
I was still finishing my Christmas shopping when a college friend pointed out a few days ago that there were Valentines’ displays already out on the 22nd.
So weird. Christmas in America is so weird. I am still getting used to this culture again even though Britain is overcommercialized too. In the beginnings of America, the Puritans shunned special celebrations of Christmas because they believed it “Papist idolatry” and not a day or festival to be found in Scripture.
Now? I saw someone rant about anyone who doesn’t put up a Christmas tree on social media. We are a confused country with a small memory. However, apart from all that and the distracting mass commercialism that has taken over, Christmas in America is something I have come to treasure. I have spent 6 or 7 Christmas’s away from family overseas. Once with a bunch of friends on a cold, wet, NOT sunny Greek island because we couldn’t go home (but could go to the Greek island!) and the rest with random families in the UK who took me in. Christmas away has made me grateful for so much and more reflective than I used to be. These are some things I have learnt over the years:
- Not to take it for granted that I am home with people who know me and love me and I call family. It has not always been the case. I have often been with mostly strangers and one friend who so generously opened up their family to me. Some of those strangers, i.e. my friend’s extended family have become near and dear to me and some I have not seen again past the one Christmas I spent with their family. Being home around your own family is not a luxury everyone can have even if you have not left your country. Gratitude, while I am here is where my heart rests. My family isn’t exactly normal. Also, this is the best game ever!
2. Every family is a bit messy, complex, has difficult moments or is embarrassing in some way. I’ve not been invited home with people because of the fear of exposing their family to the outside world. I was once invited and then uninvited for Christmas for that reason. That was a hard year. However having sampled a lot of different families, I have not met a perfect one. It has helped me lower my expectations and be willing to be flexible. I am unsurprised at difficult stories, family drama, and have learnt to laugh when possible. Give grace at the holidays. We all need it.
3. I sometimes think I am better prepared than most to get married at least when it comes to lowering holiday expectations. I realize this might be foolishly arrogant but here is my case! Rotating around Christmas or Thanksgivings or getting used to a new holiday you don’t yet know about has been my norm for years whereas many people don’t discover that shock of change until they marry. I already know “my own traditions” are not the law and that taking turns or change happens with new families. That is okay. Christmas with so many different families that are not my own has taught me that. It’s been interesting watching new friends struggle with having any change brought to Christmas from how their family did it. A good tonic is to spend a decade or so abroad and you have to learn to do that. If you are newly married, change will come, and it’s okay. All cultures do Christmas differently and families are all mini-cultures, but that is okay.
4. Simplicity and serving are beautiful things at Christmas. Yesterday with 4 days notice, 12 people came together from my church who didn’t even all know one another to help move an Afghan family across town that I have become friends with recently. It was probably one of my favourite moments of the Christmas weekend, seeing everyone pull up at 8am yesterday (I am not a morning person), helping a family that doesn’t have a family network here feel loved and supported as they are making this strange new country home. My friends barely speak a few words of English but there were hugs and gratitude and love. Before a box had been unpacked, we were offered a delicious home cooked Persian meal they had brought prepared from their old house. The children, who learn so quickly, spent the morning translating for their parents and as the last of us left, wished us a “Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!”
5. Jesus, today is really all about Jesus.
There are traditions, and turkey and ham or rice and alfajores, and complicated family when you are with family, and homesickness when you are away from family, and Christmas trees, and finding presents, and if you are in America you can think that Christmas is stressful or indulgent. But it’s not about all of that. Those are just the icing and sometimes the distraction to Christmas. Christmas is all about Christ and when I have these moments to stop and ponder the awe of it…God became a man.. it’s beautiful and curiousity grabbing and for those unfamiliar with the Christmas story, shocking, and for those too familiar, it can be too common place but we all desperately need to hear it all over again.. Christmas is about Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity who always existed, who spoke the universe into being, stepping into time and space and becoming a human being.. the incarnation.
I’ve spent the last few weeks furiously writing essays to finish off a semester of my masters and some of them were on Jesus being fully God and fully man. I also did an Old Testament class where I needed to reread the Old Testament in less than three months amidst other readings.
Going through it in such a sweep has really been cool as Scripture has popped out to me in fresh ways. (I also recommend the dramatized audio bible!) It began with the promise God gave Adam and Eve that though wickedness and evil had come upon humanity through their disobedience, He wasn’t leaving them abandoned and with that came God’s first cryptic promise that the offspring of the woman (who would this be?!) would bruise Satan’s head and Satan would bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3)
The promises kept coming and people kept waiting and they got clearer and clearer until God said through the prophet Isaiah:
And indeed, God’s promise to Isaiah 600 years before Jesus came true, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” Isaiah 7:14
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” Matthew 1:18-25
As I lay in my own bed, in my home town, a mile or so from my parents and a mile or so from my brother and his wife and another Christmas has passed, I am grateful for what living far away has taught me. I am grateful for my global family. I am grateful for the moments I have with my immediate and extended family here. I am also grateful for a moment to ponder Jesus and to ask the Lord to give me a sense of awe and wonder over who this holiday symbolizes in the first place.