Some of my favorite traditions while living overseas started in the darkness, a desperate clinging to hope when things were hard. They were started because I needed a way to mark time, to hit the pause button on stress and work and the daily mundane that can hover over this global life.
That very first Christmas in Cambodia, my teammate and I had blazed through the honeymoon stage and all the feelings of homesickness and weariness were crashing in on us. We didn’t know what was available, if there were Christmas concerts or Christmas Eve services. We were still trying to navigate both expat relationships and forging bonds with our local friends even though our language was still quite minimal.
We found a miniature Christmas tree in a local office supply store. The celebration of Christmas with all the familiar trimmings was still coming to this area, but we managed to find some simple decorations, some string, and a pretty red scarf. The tree required a little work, but the gaudy gold baubles were easily cut off and our window sparkled with the ornaments reflecting light as they hung from the security bars. We made it work.
We found a pine scented candle in a local fair-trade shop, and even though it never got lit, the rich scent greeted me each morning when I entered the kitchen. For a few short glorious weeks in December, the temperatures dropped and the tile floor actually felt cool in the early morning. It almost felt like home.
I learned pretty quickly that I needed to let go of all of my expectations for what Christmas would look like. Both my teammate and I brought our family’s favorite traditions from home and wanted them to work out just like they did in our passport country. This couldn’t be the case.
So, we started new ones. We bought cheap bus tickets the week of Christmas and found a quiet hotel and went to the coast for several days. We dined on fresh seafood, ice cream and of course, amazing curry.
We found a way to get a puzzle shipped over and turned up the air conditioning, mugs of peppermint hot chocolate or our favorite tea beside us. We smiled at the completed picture of twirling ice skaters or a frosty street front and daydreamed about snow.
Our ornament collection grew, and each year we would pull out our favorites: special non-breakable ones tucked in suitcases after home assignment, hand-crafted ornaments created with local fabrics, a few we inherited from friends before they left.
While I missed the traditions that found their way into my family’s Christmas celebration each year, I looked forward to the new traditions that my teammate and I started. We added something new each year and adapted as we lived in a different house or town or part of the country. We invited friends in to be part of our celebrations with us, making and sharing Christmas cookies and having tea parties or decorating parties.
In many ways, our teammates become adopted family in the places where we serve. Sure, it can be hard to love them sometimes, when opinions differ or personalities clash. Yet, especially during the holidays, I believe it is so important to forge those team traditions and make the most of the time with special people around us. I’m particularly grateful for the ways my team intentionally created those new traditions with me.
What sorts of traditions have you started with your local team? Share your favorite with us!