Before moving overseas we debated about whether or not to take our Christmas tree, a 5 foot pre-lit beauty. The perfect tree, a virtually undetectable fake. I loved it. Each year that perfect tree went up early and stayed up late.
Alas, in the move as our shipment and suitcases filled with other possessions, my beloved tree ended up in the give-away pile.
Last Christmas, our first in country, didn’t feel like Christmas at all. We’d just moved to our new and permanent town after language school. We spent pre-Christmas days unpacking, painting, and doing repair work on our house. Christmas Day seemed to appear out of nowhere.
This year, my eager anticipation for Christmas has been mounting since early October. Perhaps it’s the fact we’ve been settled here for a year. We are no longer wide-eyed and overwhelmed. Perhaps it’s my parents coming from America to spend the holiday with us. Perhaps it’s a bit of home sickness. It’s probably all three.
This year I miss my perfect Christmas tree. I long for shops filled with gifty things, church nativities, and Santa at the mall. I want fancy wrapping paper, bows, and carols. I want neighbourhoods with coordinated Christmas lights. I want snow.
On our island, Christmas is a big deal. I’ll have some of the things I’m longing for, but it’ll be, well . . . to put it mildly, it’ll be different.
I’ll get the carols, even Feliz Navidad on repeat. These songs will be blared at twenty million decibels from the town’s many “Pondok Natal” – wooden structures housing Santa, or Baby Jesus, or both, as well as the customary stadium speakers. These things are LOUD and play all day and all night.
Our church here has been planning the Christmas program for months. To raise money for the huge celebration, fried noodles and cakes are made available for purchase after every service. For Christmas fundraising at the church in our language school town, we sold RW. That’s code for spicy dog meat.
This year, after pining for my perfect Christmas tree, I bought an overpriced plastic tree from our local grocery store. It’s really big, more than 6 feet. From far away it’s pretty good, but from anywhere less than 20 feet the shiny green fishing line branches look a lot like toilet brushes.
We’ll probably get to meet Santa this year too. Believing in Santa isn’t something that we necessarily encourage, we’ve always told our son the truth, but he’s still pretty smitten by the idea of a big man in a red coat doling out gifts. Last year at a party Santa gave all the kids bags of treats. That Santa smelled like cigarette smoke, had red teeth from chewing betel nut, a dingy suit, a saggy beard, and wore reflective aviator sunglasses. My star-struck 4 year old took one look and wanted the Indonesian words for how to ask Santa where he parked his reindeer.
Our team Christmas party won’t be mulled wine and mince pies. It’ll be a Bakar Batu feast. While the men dig a big pit and heat stones, us women will clean a mountain of leafy green vegetables and prepare the pig meat. After about 3 hours of work the veggies and meat will be layered into the pit on top of alternating layers of banana leaves and hot stones. The whole thing is sealed with long grass and left to steam for an hour or so. We’ll play games and retell the Christmas story to pass the time; then bring out all the food onto a large tarp and sit around in circles eating with our hands.
I won’t have neighbourhoods filled with lights, but on Christmas day neighbours will open their doors. Here you don’t celebrate Christmas at home alone with your family, you go out and visit all of your friends. Each house will have food and drinks to share with whoever happens to stop by.
There are many, many things I miss. And there will be many, many things that are done differently here. But if Christmas is really about the greatest gift, then different can be good too.
This Christmas we’ll remember that God was born flesh and dwelt among us. We’ll remember that because of Christmas the world received long-promised grace and redemption.
The Christmas I long for, isn’t really Christmas. I miss the familiarity of traditions. I miss what I know. I miss my own comfort zone. Perhaps that’s the real gift of celebrating Christmas overseas in such different ways. I remember that traditions are nice, but they don’t define Christmas.
This year, as we remember the gift of the Saviour, we’ll do so in the middle of plastic toilet brush trees, the most delicious fried noodles, smelly Santas, deafening music, community pig roast feasts, and the joyful hospitality of our friends and neighbours.
So this is Christmas. Different, but celebrating our Saviour all the same.
Merry Christmas, friends. Wherever in the world you may be.