There are some stories that remain in a family and become a part of our DNA. These stories are told year after year, but they never get old. Here is one of our stories that reminds me each year of the wonder of Christmas.
My mom grew up in a small town in Massachusetts called Winchendon known at the time for its toy factory. The toy factory made a variety of wooden toys and the town earned the well-deserved nickname of Toy Town. A large wooden rocking horse named Clyde created in 1912 stood under a pavilion in the center of town, a symbol of the town’s history.
My mom was named Pauline and she was the first-born, the oldest of four children born to my maternal grandparents, Ruth and Stanley Kolodinski. Hers was a world of seasons; hot, humid summers, fall with red and golden foliage, white Christmases, and rainy April’s that brought out the glorious mountain laurel in late June. She knew baked beans, brown bread and New England boiled dinners.
The long sea journey that took her, my father, and my oldest brother to Pakistan in 1954 transferred her from a town of sidewalks and bay windows to a desert with dusty palm trees and Bougainvillea. The contrast between her life in New England and that in Pakistan could not have been more pronounced. Her story was one of a commitment and calling rooted deeply in her soul; a story with many chapters that began with a move across the world to create a home and life in Pakistan.
Christmases in Pakistan differ dramatically from those in the west. As an Islamic Republic, the majority of the population is Muslim and green, red, and gold twinkling fairylands and holiday music don’t exist. Christmas traditions among the minority Christian population include long drama presentations depicting the Christmas story, all night Christmas caroling parties, and new clothes for everyone in the family. Christmas was a time where my parents opened up our home to people coming from near and far, serving hundreds of cups of sweet Pakistani chai throughout the day along with special sweets and savory snacks.
When my mom and dad first arrived, adjusting to Christmases in Pakistan was a challenge. Loneliness and homesickness tended to come on like thick clouds, made more difficult by their desire to create magic for their children. They were acutely aware of the absence of grandparents and other extended family members back in the U.S. I don’t remember this happening, but I’ve no doubt that sometimes the effort to make things special for us kids overwhelmed and tears crept in, throats catching on Christmas carols as they celebrated Christmas far away from where they had been raised.
The town they lived in at the time of this story possibly resembled ancient Bethlehem more than any place on earth. Dusty streets, flat-roofed houses with courtyards, and donkeys and ox carts that brayed and roamed outside were all a part of the landscape of Ratodero. We were the only foreigners in town and our house was located right in the middle of a neighborhood. Mosques surrounded the house, their tall minarets ever present; the call to prayer echoing into our home five times a day.
When I was almost three years old, my mom experienced deep sadness during the Christmas season and, despite the excitement of my brothers and me, felt more than ever like we were “deprived” of a “real” Christmas. It was a few days before Christmas that the feelings became more than she could bear and after we were put to bed, she went up on the roof top and looked out over the city of Ratodero. She gives words to her feelings in this narrative:
“Leaning against the wall, I pulled my sweater closer against the evening chill of December. The tears I had been holding back spilled over as I looked up at the stars, then out over the flat roofed houses where our neighbors were cooking their dinner. The smoke from wood and charcoal fires rose in wisps, and with it the now familiar odors of garlic, onions and spices. Familiar, yes, but at that moment the smells only reinforced the strangeness of this place. Then I wondered ‘Did Bethlehem look and smell something like this?’ – Bethlehem where God came down to become a human being, a little baby in a manger, in a setting not so different from some of our neighbor’s homes”.(Jars of Clay, page 128)
It was at this point, tears falling, experiencing the loneliness and sadness of a world apart, that she looked up at the dark, clear sky. As she watched the bright stars, millions of light years away, she heard singing just as on that night so long ago the shepherds heard singing. Could it be angels? It was a moment of wonder and awe that the God who she loved so deeply, who knew her frame, knew her sadness, would provide angels to bring comfort and a reminder that she was not alone.
There were no heavenly angels, but “earth angels” had arrived in the form of our dear friends, the Addletons and the Johnsons – two missionary families with 7 kids between them. Out of love for our family they had traveled along a bumpy dusty road, remembering that we were alone in this city. There they stood in the street outside our front door singing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. Let Earth receive Her King!” I am too young to remember the celebration that followed, but my mom writes this:
“We woke our children, and together we sang Christmas Carols, ate Christmas cookies and drank cups of steaming tea. And I knew God had sent them to us on that very night to show me once again that no place where he sent us could ever be “God-forsaken” Jars of Clay, page 128
My mom, far removed from the snowy childhood Christmases of her past, where eggnog and Grandma K’s raisin-filled cookies were plentiful, taught us that Christmas is not magic that can quickly disappear. Instead it’s wonder. It’s the wonder of the incarnation; it’s the wonder of God’s love; it’s the wonder of angels heard from rooftops.