The holidays are often bittersweet for me. Between the candy canes, sparkly lights, and tasty desserts, my childhood memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas are riddled with flashes of family stress, brokenness, and consumerism. I have always been reluctant to go ‘all out’ when it comes to the holidays: I don’t do a lot of decorating, I don’t have the music cranked 24/7, and I try to keep it simple.
Maybe it’s a hangover from the relentless push for more shiny, more pretty, and more perfection from the well-meaning adults of my childhood, when there appeared to be an expectation for things to be “just so.” The rituals and traditions at the time felt suffocating to me, and no matter how hard I try to explain it now, because I do love my family and have re-embraced some traditions, I still can come across as a bit of a grinch! Trust me though, I’m not.
When I moved overseas from the United States twenty years ago, I was excited to put old holiday rituals behind me, and start new traditions in Kenya with my husband. Instead, when I woke up that first Christmas morning, I found myself missing everyone and a lot of things from home. Despite the beautiful surroundings- our teammate’s flat was on the edge of a dense equatorial forest, and a 10 minute walk to the tropical beach- I longed for a hot cup of wassail and snowflakes on frosty windows. The local restaurant where we had Christmas lunch was packed with half-drunk expats on holiday, wearing crowns and singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Rather than my mom’s fruit cocktail and my mother-in-law’s golden raisin buns, we were served food that just didn’t hit the spot– where was the ham, and green beans!? As the waves crashed on the shore, dhows bobbing beyond the reef, I had a revelation: it’s okay to carry pieces of home with me.
As strange as it may sound, meaningful pieces of home can lift spirits and carry the soul through seasons of separation from loved ones and bring us closer to the Father. In the small things – the spices, the fabrics, the lights, the liturgy, the tunes – resides comfort, hope, and even transformation.
In the following years as we moved from Africa to Asia, my husband and I slowly and deliberately found ways to incorporate ‘pieces of home’ into our holidays. Family sent stocking stuffers, advent calendars, and gingerbread kits. My mom sent spices for wassail, along with my favorite Christmas mints. We cooked comfort food from holidays past, served alongside local dishes we learned to make for our holiday dinner guests. We gathered with teammates and friends to sing carols and give locally-bought gifts for the children to exchange.
On one home assignment, my mother-in-law handed me a small box of ornaments from my husband’s childhood, and said, “Hang these alongside the others.” I packed them carefully in my suitcase, and then at Christmastime hung my hubby’s 1982 skiing-angel ornament, alongside the beaded Maasai angel, Thai Christmas star, and Chinese embroidered advent heart.
Now we are back in the States and one of our favorite Christmas keepsakes that has traveled the miles, will be displayed again this Christmas– a beautiful fabric advent wall-hanging from Hong Kong. Come November 30th, my kids will pull out the advent wall-hanging from the closet and arrange it ‘just the way we did in China.” Like me, my TCK kiddos can’t survive the holidays without their own “pieces of home.” It brings them joy, comfort and connection in ways I now understand more deeply.
Twenty years later our Christmas tree looks like a disheveled international traveler, adorned with souvenirs from Wales, Italy, Japan, Thailand, China, and many other places. It kind of represents my nomadic heart– like many of you, one that has traversed borders, cultures, and language. We carry invisible pieces of homes past– places we hold dear, memories that dangle like little ornaments from our heart.
The stained-glass windows and glorious voices of a Cathedral choir.
Frying freshly caught fish over an open fire on Christmas morning.
Helping your kids make Christmas cookies with their local friends.
Swaying to the drum beat of caroles in a hot, corrugated-roofed church.
Opening up a care package full of your favorite treats from home.
Arranging a nativity set with a curious neighbor who just dropped by.
May these memories and pieces of home draw you closer, not only to tradition and comfort, but to the Savior whose birth we celebrate!
It’s your turn! Have you found special ways to incorporate pieces of home with your holiday celebrations overseas? What is the one ‘must-have’ tradition or object that enriches your holiday worship of Jesus?