It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Perhaps Charles Dickens was living his first Christmas abroad when he wrote those words.
He sure could have been.
I was only two months into my current overseas assignment when Christmas hit me like a 10-foot pole. It was both the best and the worst.
It was my first Christmas living abroad alone, no family within thousands of miles, every face around me new. Nearly every place unexplored territory. All the home I long for at Christmas seemed missing.
I love Christmas. I love the traditions, the parties, the decor, the music, the cookies, the cheesy movies, all of it. When it comes to Christmas, I’m a fan.
And here I am, thousands of miles away from what and who I’ve known and it sure doesn’t feel like the most wonderful time of year.
So I set my mind to making it good, making it right. I made a list of all the things I was going to do to crank out a Christmas that wasn’t awful; to soothe the screaming aches of homesickness and longing and displacement I felt. As a way of keeping my eyes open and dragging myself up out of the gloom I felt closing in, I did a series of photos of joy on Instagram. I made donuts for people I barely knew, coaxed my teammates to join me in eating market food by candlelight. I was actually a bit crazy about checking things off the list. Something, anything to feel like Christmas.
All those things were good, but somehow in all my hustle to make Christmas ok, I almost missed what we were really celebrating.
Thankfully, there was that one night at that one Christmas party when all those people were singing that one song that actually caught my heart and made me stop.
A group of kids singing “Away in a Manger,” you ask?
College students singing “Jingle Bells”.
It’s both right and it’s wrong that “Jingle Bells” was the song that got my attention. Wrong because, really, “Jingle Bells”? And right because pretty much the only part of Christmas that has reached my host culture is the cultural celebration – they know all about stockings and trees and Jingle-bell-rocking, but nothing at all about the story we’re celebrating. It seems all that has washed across the sea is the secular aspect of Christmas.
And that is really, really sad.
But maybe even in some of this, there’s something to see. The underlying aspects of what makes Christmas, even a non-Jesus focused Christmas, are qualities like love, generosity, kindness, and home. Things that were the ideas of Creator God himself.
So that night, as those students were dashing through the snow (which none of them has ever seen), my one-horse open sleigh was drawing me to something deeper. To a moment where the Lord was waiting to give me a special gift on this not-so-merry of Christmases.
I’ll never forget that moment – looking around my teammates’ living room, every face there had been a stranger two months prior, but somehow, right then, I felt something I had been longing to feel.
I felt home.
It wrapped me up like a warm blanket, crumbled me in its embrace. I had been longing to feel home for what seemed like years (you all know how infinitely long those first few months feel). Yearning for the day when I would feel like I was in the right place.
And here I felt it.
How it was “Jingle Bells” that brought about that moment, I’ll never know, but I have a new affinity for the song since that night. And a new awareness that even though so many cultural symbols of Christmas have strayed so, so far from the true celebration of Advent, even in those we can be drawn towards something deeper.
Jesus brought us Comfort and Joy. He brought us all the best of all the things we could think to hope for. He brought us Hope. He brought us Redemption. He brought us life.
He brought us home.
So maybe this year the only thing around you that resembles the holiday is a neon pink tree in the supermarket (just saw one of those today), or a misspelled “Mery Christmas” sign at a local restaurant. Or maybe the only thing in sight is the slightly damaged special something you dragged across the world to keep in your home. Whatever it might be, let it be a reminder of what we truly celebrate.
And even if this Christmas is both the best and the worst, it’s ok. Because nothing changes the reality of what we celebrate. A thousand awful Christmases in a row can’t change the fact that Jesus came, as Emmanuel. That God is with us.
That sounds like the best of times to me.
Does Christmas look the same in your host country as where you came from? Do you have a story of the holiday feeling like both the best of times and the worst?