The first Christmas overseas, I sobbed—loud, embarrassing heaves, not gentle, wistful tears—and earned myself an awkward consolation pat on the head from a male teammate who wasn’t sure what to make of this small town Alabama girl who couldn’t pull herself together. I was young, sad, and missed home.
Fast forward 11 years, and I expect I’ll find myself in tears this Christmas, too. Only this time it’ll be the reverse: after spending most of the past decade in Asia, this holiday season, tears will be spilled because our family (I’ve added a husband and two little ones in the intervening years) has returned to the States and I’m missing my Asian home.
I’ve gone and written of salty streaks down my cheeks, not the grace of the advent of the Christ Child. But—oh!—this is where the joy comes. As cross-cultural roamers, we come and go, we put down roots and yank them up, transplanting ourselves from this continent to that, from one home to another. It’s hard, bitter, painful. But, almost against all odds, it happens: we again make a home. I found a way to make my mom’s sugar cookies, but I also found that now Christmas will always mean the lingering aroma of red chili peppers from the annual Christmas hot pot meal to which my local friends treated me (their hospitable homage to my culture’s highest holiday). Christmas doesn’t quite feel like Christmas until I’ve sung Silent Night in (at least) two languages. Christmas Eve will always remind me of the horde of people who pour into the city squares to beat one another with inflatable bats and spray each other with fake snow.
We little band of nomadic overseas workers lose a lot—family and tradition and memories, to name a few—for the gift of our overseas Christmases. But for me, the gains far outweigh the sacrifices.
Yes, I expect I’ll have many tears this season. I’ll miss the sweetness of a holiday centered on Jesus. (I’m not trying to embrace American culture wars over red Starbucks cups, but am speaking of the unique joy of living in a place where there’s no expectation of a month-long holiday hoopla.) I’ll miss sharing the story of the birth in the manger with person after person who doesn’t know what it means. I’ll miss the absurdity of the Santa Claus and the Seven Dwarves display in the hotel next to my apartment complex.
I’ll miss my friends, brothers and sisters who were also far from their families but who became my family in those years in Asia. I’ll miss other dear ones, brothers and sisters who didn’t grow up with the anticipation of presents under the Christmas tree but who now celebrate because they’ve met the One whose gift of himself changed all our paths.
Scripture describes Christmas like this: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” (John 1:14a) As cross-cultural workers, we “dwell among” people who have yet to see Christ’s glory. That is the most beautiful, wonderful thing of which I can think! But the overwhelming beauty of this life doesn’t make it easy. It’s not just hard, it’s often agonizing to dwell in dark, broken, lonely places. Add in missing family and friends back “home” and you’ve got a potent cocktail of sadness that might just erupt, like mine did that first year, in a gush of tears at the most inopportune time.
The true gift of Christmas comes not because of where or in spite of where we are physically located. It comes when we sit at the foot of the manger and worship the Babe inside it. How that plays itself out is, in part, up to us as individuals. It might mean taking an hour-long ride on a cramped and swerving bus to the nearest coffee shop, somewhere it “feels like” Christmas, where you can find space and time to spend with the Savior. It might come through relationships with friends who are just getting their first glimmer of the Christ Child.
For me, this year rejoicing in Christmas means submitting my heart in obedience to a wise and just God who gives good gifts, the greatest of those gifts being his Son, Jesus. Moments of happiness will come. But no matter the state of my heart in one moment or another, as I look to Christ I find deep, lasting, true joy in the Gift that dwells in me—no matter which side of the globe I inhabit.
How have you experienced God’s gift of his Son this Christmas?
In what ways are you still longing to experience the Word made flesh this Advent season?