Surviving Christmas as a Missionary

by Chris Lautsbaugh on December 21, 2012

As a missionary, Christmas can be a season which summons our most intense feelings of homesickness.

-You are away from friends and family. No matter how broken family structures become, people always get together over the holidays.

-The nation you serve in often does not “feel” like Christmas. The first warm weather Christmas I experienced was a shock to my senses. Now, I find Christmas sneaks up on me as I serve in a nation with a lesser degree of the materialistic, “mall decorated prior to Thanksgiving” kind of atmosphere. It just doesn’t look or feel like the holidays.

– Most individuals and families have more traditions wrapped up in Christmas than any other time of the year. Missing those family gatherings or celebrations can bring a sense of isolation and loneliness.

As I write this, my family is on a short furlough in the United States for Christmas. We attempt to return once every three years for the holidays. But in those other two years, we have incorporated a few strategies to both survive and celebrate being away during the “merriest” time of the year.

Some rights reserved by riverrunner22 on

Here are some tips I have learned from 20 plus years on the missions field:

1. Acknowledge Things Will Be Different
In order to succeed in celebrating, you have to be in the right frame of mind, or you start miserable. Don’t deceive yourself into thinking we can make a “mini-American” (or wherever you are from) Christmas on location.

2. Establish New Traditions
How does the nation you are in celebrate? Embracing a new custom can be one of the best parts of the season.

South African’s celebrate with the braai. A braai is a  BBQ on steroids. It take most of the day while you slowly cook food and socialize. The main course is meat and more meat. Chicken is considered a vegetable. We started a tradition of cooking some nice meat, making a casual afternoon of relaxing and enjoying the company of some of our friends.

We have also added a camping vacation to this season as Christmas falls over the kid’s summer school holidays.

3. Something Old, Something New
Find a tradition you can replicate in addition to new customs. We still find a Christmas tree, even though it makes the tree from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” look like a prize winner! Our kids make ornaments rather than pulling antiques out of storage.

4. Find Community
Don’t spend it alone.

Let me say this again. Find someone to celebrate with.

Self pity and mourning will creep in otherwise. Invite friends, others missionaries, or even some of your co-workers for a meal and fellowship.

5. Use Technology
You can still “attend” the gatherings back home with the increase in technology. As you tell the stories of your celebration, don’t be surprised if people at home are a bit jealous of the nice weather and fun you are having!

So, if you are discouraged. Don’t give up.

Keep trying things till you embrace a new tradition.

Whether you are home or abroad, invest the time it takes to make this celebration special.

All throughout the Bible, celebrations were times of remembrance. Israel needed to pause and takes stock; remembering who they were and what God had done for them.

Don’t let a change in geography rob you or your family from creating memories. And of course, celebrate Jesus breaking into time and space, forever changing the planet.

Merry Christmas!

What are some of your overseas (or domestic) tips for missionaries or expats?


– Chris Lautsbaugh, Missionary teacher and author with Youth With A Mission, living in S. Africa.
Blog: NoSuperHeroes   Twitter: @lautsbaugh   Facebook: NoSuperHeroes 

Print Friendly

About Chris Lautsbaugh

In missions for 20+ years currently in South Africa as a teacher and leadership coach. He serves side by side with wife, Lindsey, and two boys, Garett and Thabo. Blogs at on grace, leadership, and missions. Wrote Death of the Modern SuperHero:How Grace Breaks our Rules.
  • Great tips! Wish I’d had them my first Christmas far from home… Thanks for sharing them.

    Hope you have a great Christmas celebrating on that side of the water this year.

  • All great tips! It takes a while to settle into a new way of doing holidays, this is a helpful post. I especially like the one about finding something new. In a Muslim country, Christmas isn’t a big deal. But, the Quran talks about Jesus’ birth too and it has been a good time to connect and learn from people here. ( Also, the most important things to my kids have been to find local experiences. This means we camp out under the stars at the beach, we swim with whale sharks, we have dinner at a military cafeteria, and we hang our stockings by the air conditioner with care. We even made up our own family version, Djibouti-style, of Jingle Bells, complete with dust and heat and camels and donkey carts.

    • Now that is creativity! Great ideas Rachel, thanks for sharing them with the community!

  • cLotriet

    My husband is South African and misses those traditions since he has lived in the states for 8 years now, but we have made new traditions together with our children that focus on the One who came for us. Thanks for sharing this!

  • lauraparkerblog

    We actually enjoyed the quiet of holidays overseas. There wasn’t the expectations of parties and chaos, so we really had sweet family time. It bonded us together in really rich ways, I think.

    We did something where each person of the family chose one activity for the family to do together on Christmas eve day and Christmas day– go to movie, swim, play a favorite game, etc. It gave us something to do as a family that was intentional and got us out of the house!

    • We found that too Laura. Our last Christmas in South Africa was SOOO relaxing. There are pros to both holidays and home and abroad

  • We also enjoy the simplicity of Christmas here, and try to use the less hectic pace to enjoy things we might not have had time for before (or MADE time for, I should say). The fact that there aren’t Santas on every corner or Christmas plays every night makes the ones we do happen to see seem extra special. I just blogged about how sweet it is to get a little time with fellow missionaries from our home country, to do some of the traditional things like baking and decorating.

    It’s tough, each Christmas I think about how we only have a certain number of years with our family members, and that it’s sad to not be able to be with them on the “important” days when memories are made. (Sorry to throw that bummer in on a post about surviving….) But again, that makes me appreciate even more when I do get to see them.

    • Surviving implies aspects which are difficult. Thanks for bringing even more “realness” to the discussion Christie

  • Cheree

    Hi Chris, I enjoy these ‘missions’ posts as I find them so relatable. I love smiling and thinking, yep, I remember experiencing that! We have four kids now, and I find that if parents embrace new and different ways of celebrating Christmas that the whole family enjoys the holidays regardless of if its American style or SA style. Its a lot about attitude. Enjoy the now and look for some new ways to bring meaning and new memories. We love the braai, swimming, we play Christmas music off the internet stations, bake cookies in the hot weather, go caroling on the streets with friends & neighbors, attend a carol’s by candlelight service, etc.
    I love the posts…keep it up! 🙂

    • I totally agree with this. When we focus on the positive (and stay off facebook), our kids are more likely to enjoy it. When we start looking at the celebrations our folks are having in the US, it can get heavy. We have to strike a fine balance on the skype calls, as well. Too few and our kids feel disconnected, too many and they start to get down about be missing the things going on there.

      • Yes!! Great point about both the value and the struggle with Skype calls– wise of you to strike a balance. Lots of love to you this season , Christie.

  • I am enjoying the relaxed attitude toward Christmas here. Christmas tradition in Costa Rica is tamales and chicharrones. Yesterday, my neighbor invited me to help her make tamales. It was fun. They lived in the States for twelve years and miss some of the traditions from there, so we swap off…they help us create the cultural traditions from here and we are baking cookies for them and making dessert for them. I think the startling reality that I am missing what may be my brother’s last Christmas (he is battling ALS) and missing him being with all of his children and grandchildren for the first time just hit last night. But thank God for Skype. We also have a group of visitors arriving on 28th. I wasn’t really keen on that plan when it worked out that way, but now it has been a great blessing because my kids have had something to be excited about. It’s helping greatly that my father-in-law has been here with us the last two months too. We don’t feel so alone.

  • Pingback: Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping()

  • Pingback: The Signs of Christmas()

  • Pingback: Pamela Fields()

Previous post:

Next post: