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.
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.