My Invisible Christmas

In 1997 in Shandong, China, Christmas was invisible.

When I envisioned what my first Christmas with my newly married husband would be like, that image did not include a potted plant from the Biology department posing as our tree, with a tough chicken casserole acting as our Christmas feast.

It was Christmas Eve, 1997. Not a single holiday decoration could be found in our tiny town in Shandong province. There were no Christmas trees, no Santa Claus faces pasted on store windows, no lights, no music. We were even scheduled to teach our normal load of classes on December 25th. No acknowledgement of the day at all.

Except in the tiny on-campus apartment where a newlywed American couple was celebrating their very first Christmas together.

We couldn’t find a Christmas tree anywhere. Now in China, you can go to any market and find stalls chocked full of dancing Santas, plastic ornaments, and fake trees lined with fake snow.  Some market stalls are so bursting with gaudy decorations, my boys like to say that it looks like “Christmas threw up.” But, in 1997 in a small university town, not a stocking was in sight.

Christmas, it felt, was invisible.

We finally got the bright idea of borrowing a potted plant from our school’s university Biology department. It was not much more than a stick with a few spindly branches of evergreen needles. And I was still a newlywed, finding my way in the kitchen, and I bumbled my way through a chicken casserole for our Christmas dinner. The meat was tough, barely edible, but my sweet husband smiled kindly as he chewed for five minutes on every single bite.

We went for a walk around the campus, and it was a day like any other day. Life went on as normal. Classes were taught. Students studied. Grandpas and grandmas did tai qi on the school track.

No sign of Christmas.

And yet… we knew.  Immanuel. God WITH us.

We have celebrated 15 years’ worth of Christmases in Asia — in multiple locations, in different cities, and different apartments.  Our family has grown from no kids to 4 crazy boys. But one thing has remained the same: Immanuel. God with us.

Of course, we have missed celebrations at our home church in America. We have ached to sit around the table with our entire extended family. Our hearts have longed to gather around my parents’ tree, singing and laughing and celebrating the birth of our Savior. We have missed much.

But, we have been blessed and amazed by the eternal presence of Immanuel. God WITH us, no matter where the stockings are hung.

He has come every year to fill our hearts.

He came as we have shared the Christmas story with 50 Chinese kindergartners whose eyes shone with wonder at the baby who came because He loves them.

He came in the parties with university students who tell us they had never before heard the Story of One who loves them enough to take on flesh.

He came in cookies baked for the guards of our complex where we live.

He came in taxi cabs and classrooms and elevators and market stands where the Story has been shared.

He came in the blanket given to a beggar on the street, which began a friendship with eternal consequences, bringing him to his true home.

He came in the year of the Biology-department-Christmas tree and the horrible chicken casserole.

He always comes.

And I’ve come to realize that Christmas, in the simplicity we have experienced these 15 years, might possibly be closer to what it should be than all the glam and busyness that it is in other places.

Maybe it’s more like the way it was for another newlywed couple, a long time ago in Bethlehem: a quiet night with the world going on as usual, with only a few people stopping in wonder that it was the night that changed everything. It was the night that, as someone once said, “God moved into the neighborhood.”

Immanuel. God with us. This year, wherever you find yourself on this Christmas night – with a potted plant for a tree or with a Martha Stewart decorated home, oh, may we not lose sight of the true beauty of this night: God came. He is WITH us.

Merry Christmas, Velvet Ashes.  How are you seeing God with us this Christmas?



  1. Jennifer December 24, 2013

    Immanuel God with us….This very day. Whether we celebrate it alone, or with many family and friends. Whether we can see any outward signs where we are that today is Christmas Day… He came to us and is with us.

    1. Renee December 26, 2013

      Yes, Jennifer! What an amazing gift to be able to say — He IS with us, no matter where we are.

  2. Morielle December 24, 2013

    God has been reminding me that He is with me in ways most reminiscent of your descriptions of students and others getting to hear the Story for the first time. Each time He puts an opportunity in front of me to share His Word, I know He is with me. It’s so comforting, because I otherwise feel so very alone.

  3. Dawn December 26, 2013

    Renee, thank you for this post – it was a beautiful reminder that I desperately needed. I woke up on Christmas morning and it was one of the first things I encountered – your words brought me to tears. It really set the stage for things – that no matter how far away I am living from loved ones (this is my first Christmas overseas), no matter if the day went the way I wanted it to or not, etc. – the truth remained that Immanuel came and all is now well. I repeated that to myself several times throughout the day and was thankful for the reminder God gave me (through your post) to start the day. Merry Christmas!

  4. Linda December 26, 2013

    We only had a tree because there was a Japanese department store in our city in 1997. Our comfort was from team and the undisputable fact the God was with us! Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. Jenny December 28, 2013

    Your post brought me to tears as well… and it also got me wondering… other than those first few shepherds and some people in Bethlehem the first Christmas was probably pretty invisible as well. Yet it was the moment that God “became” Emmanuel.

  6. Viv December 5, 2016

    Thank you, Renee. This is truly beautiful. At Christmas especially, it is hard to be far away from loved ones. I live in India, but as this is my husband’s home country, we do have some family here. but missing ‘my side’ of the family.. As you say, when Christmas is less commercial and busy it gives us a greater chance to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas and to reach out to the homeless and poor.

    I pray that all those far from loved ones this Christmas will know, Immanuel in a greater way this Christmas and New Year.

  7. Carrie Anne Hudson December 8, 2016

    Speaking gratitude out loud has been our key to being present where we are this Christmas. It’s in gratitude that I choose to see God and not cultural anxieties. Sometime I find myself offering gratitudes through gritted teeth, but I try and say them anyway. It’s medicine. It’s God taking my head in his hands, steadying it, and reminding me of why I’m over here. If my struggle seems a little stronger, I have to block myself from social media. The pictures of my people in America gathering for parties and food and church can quickly bring discouragement. Thanks for your reminder!

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