In 1997 in Shandong, China, Christmas was invisible.
When I envisioned what my first Christmas with my newly married husband would be like, that image did not include a potted plant from the Biology department posing as our tree, with a tough chicken casserole acting as our Christmas feast.
It was Christmas Eve, 1997. Not a single holiday decoration could be found in our tiny town in Shandong province. There were no Christmas trees, no Santa Claus faces pasted on store windows, no lights, no music. We were even scheduled to teach our normal load of classes on December 25th. No acknowledgement of the day at all.
Except in the tiny on-campus apartment where a newlywed American couple was celebrating their very first Christmas together.
We couldn’t find a Christmas tree anywhere. Now in China, you can go to any market and find stalls chocked full of dancing Santas, plastic ornaments, and fake trees lined with fake snow. Some market stalls are so bursting with gaudy decorations, my boys like to say that it looks like “Christmas threw up.” But, in 1997 in a small university town, not a stocking was in sight.
Christmas, it felt, was invisible.
We finally got the bright idea of borrowing a potted plant from our school’s university Biology department. It was not much more than a stick with a few spindly branches of evergreen needles. And I was still a newlywed, finding my way in the kitchen, and I bumbled my way through a chicken casserole for our Christmas dinner. The meat was tough, barely edible, but my sweet husband smiled kindly as he chewed for five minutes on every single bite.
We went for a walk around the campus, and it was a day like any other day. Life went on as normal. Classes were taught. Students studied. Grandpas and grandmas did tai qi on the school track.
No sign of Christmas.
And yet… we knew. Immanuel. God WITH us.
We have celebrated 15 years’ worth of Christmases in Asia — in multiple locations, in different cities, and different apartments. Our family has grown from no kids to 4 crazy boys. But one thing has remained the same: Immanuel. God with us.
Of course, we have missed celebrations at our home church in America. We have ached to sit around the table with our entire extended family. Our hearts have longed to gather around my parents’ tree, singing and laughing and celebrating the birth of our Savior. We have missed much.
But, we have been blessed and amazed by the eternal presence of Immanuel. God WITH us, no matter where the stockings are hung.
He has come every year to fill our hearts.
He came as we have shared the Christmas story with 50 Chinese kindergartners whose eyes shone with wonder at the baby who came because He loves them.
He came in the parties with university students who tell us they had never before heard the Story of One who loves them enough to take on flesh.
He came in cookies baked for the guards of our complex where we live.
He came in taxi cabs and classrooms and elevators and market stands where the Story has been shared.
He came in the blanket given to a beggar on the street, which began a friendship with eternal consequences, bringing him to his true home.
He came in the year of the Biology-department-Christmas tree and the horrible chicken casserole.
He always comes.
And I’ve come to realize that Christmas, in the simplicity we have experienced these 15 years, might possibly be closer to what it should be than all the glam and busyness that it is in other places.
Maybe it’s more like the way it was for another newlywed couple, a long time ago in Bethlehem: a quiet night with the world going on as usual, with only a few people stopping in wonder that it was the night that changed everything. It was the night that, as someone once said, “God moved into the neighborhood.”
Immanuel. God with us. This year, wherever you find yourself on this Christmas night – with a potted plant for a tree or with a Martha Stewart decorated home, oh, may we not lose sight of the true beauty of this night: God came. He is WITH us.
Merry Christmas, Velvet Ashes. How are you seeing God with us this Christmas?