Celebrating Together

Serving overseas often turns our Christmas traditions upside down and inside out. Scarves and snow and sparkly lights and conversations with extended family are no longer part of a normal Christmas. And when driving through neighborhoods to look at lights isn’t possible, when cutting down a real tree to take home to decorate is out of the question, when helping nieces and nephews put together new toys can’t happen, when Christmas dinner doesn’t include ham or stuffing or cranberry sauce, when a white Christmas has been traded for a day at the beach; it is easier to focus on what is missing in Christmas, instead of the wonder of Christmas.

During my time overseas focusing on all the Christmas traditions I was missing left me emotionally numb. As Christmas approached, I decorated and purchased gifts but only halfheartedly. I plastered a smile on my face for various Christmas outreach events and held back tears during church services. The wonder of Christmas had been replaced with survival of the season.

Not all of my Christmases in Europe played out this way, and the wonder of Christmas always returned by Christmas Day. Christmas Eve dinners with soup and gift-giving, Christmas Day present opening with excited children, special programs at church, and team parties and gift exchanges were all a part of Christmas away from home.

As I reflect on those years, I find a common thread woven through each joyful memory – the body of Christ. Wonder is found in celebrating Christ’s birth with our spiritual brothers and sisters. Love is found in the memories we create together while all of us are far from loved ones. Joy is found in inviting others into our homes and sharing our Christmas traditions with them.

Regaining the wonder of Christmas while overseas requires intentionality and may push us outside of our comfort zones. However, loving those in the body of Christ, specifically our teammates, will be worth the time and potential discomfort as we develop closer relationships with each other. While I was living in Ireland, a family I knew from my time in Portugal opened their home to me for several days each Christmas. Because of my presence their children’s sleeping arrangements were altered, another mouth had to be fed, and a couple more presents were purchased. Not once did they complain about these “inconveniences”; instead they included me in all of their family Christmas traditions – advent calendar reading, Muppet Christmas movie watching and wrapping paper throwing. In fact, because they were new to Ireland as well, we created a tradition together – a Christmas hike/walk on a local trail. The memories created in the warmth of their home and the chilliness of the Irish countryside remain precious and special to me.

Giving is one of the wonders of Christmas. During my time in Portugal one Christmas Eve was spent with fellow teachers as we took turns choosing American goodies, graciously donated by a couple in the United States. Favorite candies, flavored coffee creamer, baking supplies, jars of peanut butter – we chose item after item because of the generosity of the body of Christ.

Depending on your circumstances purchasing gifts for those outside of your family might not be financially feasible. Perhaps adding a place or two to the table for teammates on Christmas Eve or coordinating a white elephant gift exchange for your entire team is possible. Choosing gifts for teammates, who were also roommates, provided great joy for me each year. As a single, overseas worker most of my Christmas shopping for family was done online, so I didn’t physically purchase or wrap any of their gifts. Purchasing a few gifts for roommates or other teammates allowed me the pleasure of wandering the shopping mall looking for the perfect gifts and then wrapping them.

The wonder of Christmas isn’t found solely in our personal traditions and our childhood memories. We can celebrate the wonder of Christmas far from home and with people we aren’t biologically related to because as we love each other well at Christmas, we exhibit the same love God showed to us when He sent Christ to earth thousands of years ago.

How have you displayed the wonder of the body of Christ at Christmas?

15 Comments

  1. Elizabeth December 20, 2015

    Funny you’re talking about this, because for me, it’s in the U.S. that I feel those things — the unhappiness and the longing for Christmas overseas, in all its glorious simplicity. In fact I’ve felt pretty downcast the entire last month or so. Trying to find joy in the places I can, even sometimes in the sorrow itself.

    1. Laura December 20, 2015

      Elizabeth,

      Praying you are able to find joy this week. 🙂

    2. Michele Womble December 22, 2015

      Me, too, Elizabeth…we’re in the US for Christmas season for the first time in 15 years, and it’s nice on the one hand, to be with extended family for Christmas (my mom has been dreaming of this for years 😉 ) – at the same time, I’m feeling a little lost.   I’m finding joy in things but also sorrow – and I appreciate you saying you’re trying to find joy even “in the sorrow itself”….now that I’m “home” for Christmas I still feel like I’m far from home…which I think is how it always will be from now on until we really ARE HOME  – and so it would be really good to find joy in the sorrow of always being far from one of our “homes”.

      1. Elizabeth December 23, 2015

        Michele — yes. Yes, yes, yes, on the HOME bit. Really feeling you there. Did you read this recent guest post on A Life Overseas? I loved it 🙂

        http://www.alifeoverseas.com/searching-for-home/

        And finding joy in the sorrow — not sure how it works, but it does seem to work at times, doesn’t it?? And I think it’s perfectly acceptable to admit we are, as Brennan Manning says, “a bundle of paradoxes.”

        Christmas blessings to you this week, in both the joy and the sorrow, and in both the abundance and the lack.

  2. Martha December 21, 2015

    For some of us being where we are at the moment is also joyful. It’s certainly something we pray for.  Not all of us feel that deep attachment to American traditions, even though we grew up there, but rather enjoy new ones. Our children have loved Christmas in rural Uganda, and even some of our lamest efforts were a riot – maybe because they were so lame!  The thorn-tree branches in the rafters instead of Christmas tree, home-made ornaments that fell apart and landed on our heads from time to time.  Candy & little gifts stuffed into Dad’s boots because there is nowhere to hang stockings in our stone house.  Bellowing Christmas carols awkwardly translated into a language with too many syllables per line, trying to be heard above the tremendous dry-season wind on Christmas day, as our pastor bravely tried to read Luke 2 to a few shepherd boys & neighbours gathered under the tree.  Now every year that wind reminds me of many Christmases with our children and the long list of friends & colleagues who have come & gone.  Every year something new and different – I think that is the tradition of our lives overseas.

    1. Laura December 21, 2015

      Martha, thank you for sharing the traditions and memories your family created in Uganda! I love how living overseas allows us to create new and different memories at Christmas.

  3. brooke December 21, 2015

    Thanks for sharing.  Christmas is definitely about the Body of Christ. No two Christmas’ have been the same as I’ve served overseas.  Very few things are traditions any more.  But how wonderful to celebrate at least a little bit with expats who know some of your customs.  They treat you like family and that fill the void we grew up knowing.

    I have gathered a few decorations over the years, but that has taken time. The first Christmas here, we found a tree but no ornaments and were making them from construction paper and hanging any Christmas Cards that we actually received before the day on the tree as well.

    The only norm in this part of Africa for Christmas is celebrating at Church.  I feel embarrassed to tell them that in our culture we don’t worship on Christmas it is all about family.  But I have learned to celebrate with them and find time between services to celebrate with the expat community too.

    1. Laura December 21, 2015

      Brooke, I love how you were inventive in making Christmas decorations. 🙂 What a fun memory you now have from your first Christmas in Africa! Thank you for sharing this memory with us. 🙂

  4. Amy Young December 21, 2015

    I can honestly say as  single person, I can point to a few Christmases where I never felt lonelier than I ever did other times on the field. Thanks Laura for point to intentionality. I do think it can be different for singles and people with families. Built in people is nice :). (I’m not saying perfect or always great, but it is nice at holidays!)

    1. Laura December 21, 2015

      Amy, I agree; I think it can be a little easier/nicer at the holidays to have “built in people.” 🙂

  5. Kelly December 21, 2015

    We always knew we would be overseas at some point- and so as we began our little family I tried to create family traditions that were portable! We do advent envelopes strung on the wall with various festive activities- some have to be adapted here in Uganda, but most are doable. And our Jesse tree ornaments. We carry both of these light items back and forth wherever we are for Christmas.

    One thing that makes it feel like Christmas for me is singing silent night by candle light on Christmas Eve. So we are hosting a BBQ and carols night this year! Thanks for the affirmation that gathering with the body is a great way to celebrate!

    1. Laura December 23, 2015

      Kelly, I love how you planned ahead for Christmas traditions! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  6. Bethany J. December 22, 2015

    My husband and I had only been married for four years before we moved to Mongolia in summer 2014. Because of that, we hadn’t really established Christmas traditions of our “own” but had celebrated with our respective families in their traditional ways. Last Christmas, we joined a bunch of other teachers at a Mongolian grill for dinner, but this year, we will be specifically with our team members–all of whom are different from our team members last year. So I guess you could say we don’t have a lot of existing traditions yet.

    Not knowing how long we would be living in Mongolia when we first came, we left a bunch of Christmas stuff in the US–heirloom ornaments especially. We did bring our stockings with us, and we bought a tiny, foot and a half tall artificial tree last year. Another thing we brought with us was our digital library of Christmas music. That’s something that we can enjoy that is definitely portable too!

    Something that is good about celebrating this holiday in a country that doesn’t celebrate in the same way that we are used to is that it makes us simplify. The message of Christmas doesn’t need to be wrapped up in all the excess that we had in the US. Reading through parts of Isaiah and the Gospels puts that into perspective. It is a profound message of good news–Emmanuel!–and yet it can be simply put as well.

    1. Laura December 23, 2015

      Bethany, simplifying is so helpful and definitely makes the focus more on Christ and less on excess. Thanks for sharing the tip about Christmas music; having Christmas music playing always helps make it feel like Christmas. 🙂

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