Don’t Ask Me About My Christmas Traditions

by Amy Medina on December 1, 2016

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My first Christmas on African soil was when I had just turned six years old.  We had arrived in Liberia only three weeks earlier, and my mom was in the throes of major culture shock.  My parents had shipped over a few presents, but nothing else for Christmas.  My mom managed to find a two-foot plastic tree at a store, and decorated it with tiny candy canes wrapped in cellophane.  After just a few days, the candy canes turned into puddles inside their wrappers.  My mom says it was the most depressing Christmas she’s ever had. 

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Our first Liberian Christmas: My brother and I with our punching balloons, and my sad Mama.

I remember that Christmas, but the funny thing is, I thought it was great.  I remember being concerned how Santa would get into our house without a chimney, but my parents assured me they would leave the door unlocked.  We had a tree, we were together, and it was Christmas.  I was happy.

Fast forward 25 years to when I started raising my own TCKs in tropical Africa.  I was a young mother around the time when social media was really taking off, and I felt suffocated under the expectations of creating a magical Christmas for my children, complete with handmade crafts and meaningful traditions. Not only that, but I was quite literally suffocating in a southern hemisphere tropical climate.  There weren’t going to be any pine trees or snuggling up in pajamas while going out to see Christmas lights.  In fact, the only festivity to be found in our city was a five-foot high, mechanical, singing Santa in our grocery store that terrified my two-year-old and made her run away screaming.

We can tell ourselves that “Jesus is the reason for the season”—and even believe it—but we all know that we have expectations for Christmas to be more than that.  The traditions, the parties, the “magic,” even the cold weather, all are wrapped up in what we dream Christmas is “supposed” to be.

Which is why my first few Christmases as an adult in Tanzania were hard.  I missed my family.  And I missed the smell of wood fires in the air, wearing hats and scarves, and Christmas carols by candlelight.  I mourned over what my children were lacking.   But then I remembered that first Christmas in Liberia, and how I really didn’t care about the absence of icicle lights or pumpkin pie.  I remembered other childhood Christmases in Africa, like when our neighbors from Arizona taught us the Mexican tradition of luminarias—paper bag lanterns that lined the road on Christmas eve.  Or how our British friends introduced us to Christmas crackers, or the time a German guest stuck sparklers in the turkey.  I remembered being thrilled with the goofy, cheaply made presents found at the open-air market.  Or that year in Ethiopia when the Christmas tree was just a green-painted broomstick with branches stuck in it.

Just as TCKs dread the question, “Where are you from?” as a child I also dreaded the question, “What are your family’s Christmas traditions?”  Because growing up, we didn’t have traditions.  Every year was different because we absorbed the traditions of the people around us.  We had a tree, we had each other, and we had joy.  That was enough.

I’ve learned to relax about trying to create traditions or give my children a magical Christmas.  I’ve learned to be happy with our green, warm Christmases in Tanzania, even if it means I need to delete the “winter” songs out of my holiday playlist in order to be content.  My kids don’t need Hershey’s kisses, black-and-gold velvet dresses, or Toys R Us catalogs to be happy.  It’s often refreshing to be away from the commercialism and the psychotic busyness of the States at this time of year.  In fact, sometimes the untraditional, lonely, sparse aspects of an overseas Christmas help us to identify with the Incarnation just a little bit better.

And as for our traditions in Tanzania, they have sprung up naturally, with little effort on my part.  We close the windows and splurge on air conditioning in the living room for two weeks in December.  We have a water balloon fight.  I love to bake, so we make gingerbread houses from scratch.  But even these traditions I hold loosely, knowing that every year will vary by country or climate or what’s available at the grocery store. 

If you are one of those amazing moms who manages to build traditions that transcend country and climate, go for it.  Share your ideas with us.  But if you can’t, or won’t, or the mere thought of it stresses you out, then take a lesson from my childhood and don’t worry about it so much.  If you have a tree—even if it’s two feet tall or made from a broomstick–if you are together, and if you have joy, that’s all you really need.

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About Amy Medina

Amy Medina has spent almost half her life in Africa, both as an MK in Liberia and now in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since 2001. Living in tropical Africa has helped her perfect the fine art of sweating, but she also loves teaching, cooking, and hospitality. She and her husband worked many years with TCKs and now are involved with theological training. They also adopted four amazing Tanzanian kids along the way. Amy blogs regularly at www.gilandamy.blogspot.com.
  • Ivanna

    Questions asking about Christmas traditions didn’t bother me at first because I was newly married and of course we had no traditions. But now, when people ask me, I feel a twinge of inadequacy that we haven’t started a tradition yet. And I also totally agree with a sparse Christmas making the incarnation so much more tangible. This is my blog from the first Christmas I spent in Africa away from home: http://provocativejoy.com/5-ways-to-survive-a-depressing-christmas/

    • Amy Medina

      What great advice, Ivanna! Thanks for sharing!

  • Beth

    Good article! I want to put a plug in for inviting single missionaries to be part of family celebrations. My first Christmas in Asia, I asked what my coworkers what they did to celebrate, and a lady told me that people preferred to be with their families and I would just have to find something to do. As someone who had been on the field for just a few months, this was completely depressing and demoralizing.

    • Amy Medina

      absolutely, Beth! So sorry you went through that. I hope you have now found surrogate family!

  • Borbonita

    we didn’t celebrate christmas growing up… then my parents had a change in heart and felt it was ok to put up a tree and what not… in a matter of days half the church had put their tree as well!!! We all longed for that tradition I suppose. Then the first and only time the house got broken into was on that first christmas and they took all the gifts. We now laugh about it, but for a while there we thought it was some sort of punishment for putting up an “idol” and “conforming the world” (we’ve come a loong way as family and as a church :)) but when I share those early memories of christmas I always get the best looks out there!!!

  • Bronwyn Hiew

    Amy, I remember babysitting you and your brother! As for Christmases, even as an adult and mum, Christmas is Christmas with family. I find that I can skip the food and the gifts, even the carols, as long as I have the ones I love with me. My most lonesome Christmas was spent in London, where celebration abounded, but family was in Australia. Every time I heard carols, I got all teared up.

    • Amy Medina

      Were you Bronwyn Senator?? 🙂 So cool!
      And yes–family makes all the difference.

      • Bronwyn Hiew

        Yes, that’s me. I never realised how difficult your mom had found Christmas to be over in Liberia. At least the weather was never a big problem for us – we were used to the Aussie heat at that time of year!

        • Amy Medina

          Nice to hear from you! I have fond memories of your family! Yes, you Southern Hemisphere residents didn’t have such a hard time with our warm Liberian Christmases….and my mom did much better after that first year. 🙂

  • Mr. Buck

    Telling people my family’s Christmas traditions could be a little awkward: Hot dog roast on the beach and early-morning swim in the ocean. Getting the tree out of the box and following the instructions for putting it together. Not putting presents under the tree until Christmas Eve, for fear of attracting rogues. Having a single lady over to watch us open our presents (there was always one for her). Getting a slightly mushy apple in our stocking. Eating cold cereal for breakfast.

    • Amy Medina

      love! 🙂

  • Kristi Lonheim

    I try very hard to make sure that traditions are reproducible regardless of what country we happen to be in, so simple; something that counts as a tree with some kind of bells, stars, and angels – advent readings as a family – St. Nicholas Day to honor the tradition without complicating our understanding – music – and a birthday party for Jesus on the 25th (some kind of candle and singing “Happy Birthday”).

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