by Katherine Seat
Streams of uniformed children walked into school, trampling on the scattered grey snow. As I watched from my window, I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was all wrong and weird.
I knew well ahead of time that Christmas is not a public holiday in China, but I still felt surprised. School and cold weather should not be present on December 25th.
Christmas to me meant the end of the school year and the beginning of summer holidays. That was all I’d known, my entire Australian childhood. It was for family, church, and water fights.
“We live between worlds, sometimes comfortable in one, sometimes in the other, but only truly comfortable in the space between.” –Marilyn Gardner, Between Worlds
The author was writing about her experience as a child growing up overseas. She spent her formative years outside her passport county. I can also relate to it as an adult living overseas. I spent my formative years in my passport country, but most of my adult life I’ve lived outside it.
Before I visited China and then moved to Cambodia in my 20s, I was comfortable in Australia at Christmas. That was all I knew growing up. It surprised me that banks were open on December 25th, even though I had known that would be so.
But I would not be comfortable in Australia now, as most of my adult life I have been in Asia. I don’t think I know how to be an adult in Australia or what one would be expected to do at Christmas. But I know there are expectations as people plan weeks or even months ahead.
I was uncomfortable in Asia, but now I’m a lot more comfortable. The feeling of school and cool weather being wrong is long gone. In fact, I appreciate the cooler weather.
At first it didn’t feel like Christmas without Christmas trees and gift exchanges. But now I don’t feel that way. Some years if I have energy, I do trees and gifts — but if not that’s fine.
Christmas trees and Santa Clauses are now visible and available where I live. This wasn’t the case in northern China 20 years ago when I had my first overseas Christmas. Both Asia and I have changed.
Now I’m most comfortable between worlds. Not in Australia where Christmas is such a big deal, and yet also not going about my usual work day in Asia either.
So what are my Christmases like in this season of life? I still think of December 25th as a holiday. I feel like it is the right day to celebrate Christmas, even though I don’t believe there is anything spiritual about that date.
We join the local church to celebrate Christmas. It never feels like a proper Christmas to me because they have it on a Sunday. Local churches choose any Sunday in December or January to celebrate Christmas. It’s usually a big, noisy affair and includes a nativity play and meal. It’s an amazing display of God’s gift to us, the biggest time of the year for the young church in a Buddhist nation.
In Australia we have a church service on December 25th no matter what day of the week Christmas falls on.
So far I have been able to take December 25th off every year; I know this is not the case for many. There was one close call when I was helping at a school, but luckily I had dengue fever so I stayed home anyway.
My husband and I didn’t have a tradition of doing presents. Since our children have been old enough to know what’s going on, they have decided they need presents!
Our favourite way to spend December 25th is having a quiet day at home. I usually buy special food. Something delicious that is easy to prepare, often something foreign that we don’t eat on a normal day.
Some years we get together with other expats for a meal, sometimes not. I love that we can make a big deal of it if we want to, but if we are feeling like a low-key day, we have freedom to do that too.
What about you, O fellow expat or repat? What are your Christmases like? And how are you feeling about this Christmas?
Are you excited to be able to choose your favourite Christmas traditions and adapt? It could be an opportunity to create your own Jesus-focused fusion of cultures.
Or maybe you are dreading being in a place where you’re away from family and there are no signs of Christmas? It might not even feel like Christmas at all.
Or are you missing that expat friend whom you used to do Christmas with? Life hasn’t been the same since they moved back to their passport country.
And if you are back in your passport country, you might also have mixed emotions.
Maybe you are looking forward to finally having a proper Christmas? You’ll have it with the right people and the right weather.
Or are you dreading the first in-person family Christmas since the death of a loved one?
Or perhaps feeling overwhelmed at the commercialism and obligations?
Maybe the church in your passport country seems so different to how you remember it? Perhaps it feels Christmas time would be more meaningful with people from around the world?
I don’t know if you will be in a world that is comfortable to you or not this Christmas. Whichever it is, I hope you can still celebrate that the maker of the universe entered our world.
The light of life among us dwells
Oh, hear the darkness quake
as angels all proclaim
The glory of Immanuel!
(Lyrics from “Maker, Made A Child,” by Abi Marthinet-Glover, Alanna Glover, and Jake Marthinet-Glover. Emu Music, copyright 2020.)
Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.