Editor’s Note— This article is part one of a three-part series on Christmas on the mission field, where EFCA missionaries share their Christmas experiences. For this article, names have been changed for security reasons.
Anyone who has moved knows that downsizing is a part of the process, but move across the globe and it becomes a game of Tetris with the goal of fitting your life into two bags per person.
My husband and I moved to the Middle East when we joined the ministry of ReachGlobal in the Middle East North Africa Division. When we got married, we felt called and compelled by Scripture to serve the unreached. As we began to pursue where God was leading us, He used many Muslim friends to orient our hearts to the region and ultimately led us to join in the work that ReachGlobal was doing there. Then the game of Tetris began.
That’s how we found ourselves entering our first holiday season overseas with a single Christmas decoration. When we made the move, we left my husband’s collection of ornaments (that his mother began for him decades ago) and many other sentimental items in storage in the U.S. It just wasn’t feasible to bring everything with us on our first flight. The only Christmas-related item to make the journey was a table runner, quilted by my cousin and gifted at our wedding. That table runner now sits out for most of the “winter,” signaling the holiday season in our home.
Moving to the Middle East meant moving closer to the birthplace of Jesus. However, proximity doesn’t equate to celebration, particularly in the form of American Christmas nostalgia. In our community, light displays come out for Ramadan, not Christmas. “White Christmases” are much more likely to include fog than snow. And our friends find the concept of stockings both weird and laughable.
As different as Christmas traditions may seem to our friends and neighbors, we still really miss them. We especially missed them that first year, in our partially moved in apartment with a single table runner. So, we splurged and bought a fake Christmas tree, and we adore it.
As different as Christmas traditions may seem to our friends and neighbors, we still really miss them. We especially missed them that first year, in our partially moved in apartment with a single table runner. So, we splurged and bought a fake Christmas tree, and we adore it. We baked playdough ornaments with our youngest “teammates” (4- and 6-year-old kids) and placed a wooden camel on top of the tree. Though the ornaments have mostly been replaced by real ones, our little camel sits proudly on top each year. We know we’re lucky to even have a tree, and we applaud our co-laborers around the world that creatively make Christmas trees or celebrate in the heat of summer.
In addition to our decorations, we find little bits of Christmas throughout the city. We have a tradition of gathering with foreigner friends and trekking across town to the one big light display – think an average mall in America. We sing Christmas carols in our apartments and hand out cookies to everyone in the building. And depending on how conservative our friends are (The religion of Islam prohibits the celebration of any holiday outside of the two present in their faith. This can look different for each person but the most conservative will not even celebrate birthdays), we even get to show off our Christmas tree and the lights hung throughout our home.
In some ways, celebrating Christmas amongst unreached people makes it sweeter. Though our gatherings are smaller, they are intentional and intimate. Our team gathers and celebrates like a family; the same people that labor alongside us in the work of ministry are the same people with whom we play games and exchange gifts. Christmas can be about so many different things in American culture but here, for the most part, those who celebrate really are celebrating God’s coming to earth, the birth of the Savior.
Christmas also comes with opportunities for spiritual conversations. One of my favorite Christmas memories since moving was with my friend Sarah.
Sarah was my first real friend in the Middle East. She’s vivacious and smart and loves to laugh. One Christmas, she informed a friend and I that she had a dream of being able to put the star on the top of a Christmas tree. She had seen it in movies and was convinced that it would be an absolute blast. So, my friend planned a girl’s night and the three of us set up and decorated her tree. Everything was so new and fun to her – tree skirts and sentimental ornaments were completely foreign. We all laughed and danced to Christmas music as she used the tree skirt and a halo to pretend she was an angel.
It was one of those moments where you looked around and thought, “I wish I could bottle this day up and keep it.” Then we took out a little nativity scene. Sarah looked at it and, somewhat perplexed, asked, “What is this baby doing here?” I tried to explain that the baby was Jesus, and she just said, “Okay, well I’ve got to know that story.” Which was just the sweetest request to hear the gospel that I had ever heard. Though a majority of our conversation had been a mix of English and Arabic, we switched to full Arabic and my friend got to hear, in her heart language, why Christmas is so important to us.
That was the only Christmas we would spend with Sarah. She moved before we would enter a new holiday season, making that opportunity with the tree and the nativity one that we won’t have again. And God took that nativity story and used it in her life as a launching pad for deeper exploration. She has continued to process, ask questions and even read the Bible for herself. She is still following Islam, but I continue to pray that as she seeks God, she will find the God that loved her so much that He was willing to come to her as a baby in a manager.
Sometimes it feels like we sacrifice so much being so far away – something we’re particularly aware of during Christmastime; but moments like that one with Sarah are the gifts God gives in return.
At Christmas, we are all given wonderful opportunities to talk about Jesus. Even more so if you are in the States. You can invite people to a Christmas service and share a meal and talk about what it all means. You can explore light displays with friends and talk about the Light of the World. There are many creative and fun ways to orient your celebrations, traditions and families toward the coming of Jesus. I encourage you all to ask God how He can use you and your family this holiday season and then take advantage of the opportunities He gives you.
Maybe you will find, like us, that what God brings you is better than what you could have planned or imagined on your own. If we tried hard enough (and maybe squinted a little) Christmas in the Middle East could look pretty similar to Christmas in America. In some ways, we indulge in that. And yet, while our Christmas may look different now, it’s equally great as the ones we’ve known before. We wouldn’t trade our table runner, camel tree topper, newfound traditions or heart-to-heart moments with friends for anything.
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