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?