Celebrating Christmas as an Expat

Christmas in Poipet, Cambodia casinos and Christmas trees
I may not decorate for Christmas, but the Poipet casinos sure do...

Most of us have strong memories of Christmas, whether good or bad. When I think about Christmas growing up with my family, I immediately think of my father reading the Nativity story from Luke to his wife and five children, with the Mannheim Steamrollers Christmas CD playing in the background and pumpkin rolls sitting on the counter, waiting to be devoured. My father always insisted on one person opening a present at a time, so the whole family could enjoy the process, but that usually disintegrated into chaos by the third person.

We spread the mess of toys, books, and wrapping paper across the living room, spent all day in our pajamas, and watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas - the Jim Carey version. For some reason, that is my mother's absolutely favorite Christmas movie. My mother always made food ahead of time - cinnamon rolls, plates of cheese and cold meats with slices of homemade bread - because she didn't want to do any work on Christmas day.

The past few years, my memories of Christmas have shifted a lot. I definitely experienced a change after getting married four years ago. You are thrust into traditions that are equally treasured but unfamiliar to you. And the past several Christmases have been in different countries and cultures - in the United States (but followed immediately by a trip to Israel and Jordan, during which the locals were still celebrating); then in Cambodia right before our trip to Hungary, Vienna, and Istanbul (which meant we also experienced a bit of European Christmas); snowy Japan and quirky Macau. And this year, it will be in Thailand. Last year's Christmas in Japan was full of hot cider, fireplaces, and powdery snow. This year, it will be white sand and sun and a very pregnant woman lolling about on a beach chair (sorry if I'm making any of you jealous...just keepin' it real).

As someone living outside her home country (i.e. expat), it's difficult to find a balance in celebrating Christmas. During our first Christmas in Poipet, we decorated a rather pathetic-looking tropical Christmas tree (I mean, really sad - as in, Martha Stewart would probably cry if she saw it and not out of joy) and spent the afternoon with another missionary family in town. Andrew and I bought each other presents; he even managed to get a bicycle from Thailand for me. But the past few years, we haven't really bought each others presents or decorated or practiced any familiar Christmas traditions - partially because we traveled for Christmas and figured the trips were presents enough.

Honestly, sometimes it's easier to just get away for Christmas instead of staying home and feeling homesick for familiar experiences. I've been nostalgic for a Kansas City Christmas this week. Maybe it's the plethora of Instagram photos, showing snowy porches and sparkly trees and a dozen pumpkin rolls laid out on my mom's kitchen counter. Or maybe it's the realization that we're starting our own family, but don't have anything resembling my own Christmas memories to share with him. I miss an organized, solemn, peaceful Christmas service - in English - with hymns sung to the background of brass horns and piano; hot drinks, cold fingers, and frost on the window; the same Christmas songs played over and over wherever you go, set to different tunes. I miss my mother's food, my father's inevitable late-night-Christmas-Eve trip to Wal-Mart for the gift shopping he delayed, my siblings' excitement over wrapped boxes and packages.

I feel like it's impossible to recreate the "holiday spirit" that I miss here, so I don't even want to try. We don't have one Christmas decoration up in our house. Andrew and I bought no presents for anyone this year, pleading busyness and the fact that we took presents home for all our families in September and won't be in Poipet to exchange presents with any other expats.

In America, people complain about fighting materialism and the commercialization of a sacred day. Here, it's a struggle to remember Advent at all. Our neighbors seem completely unaware of the upcoming holiday, and most have no idea why Christmas is celebrated. It gives me a small view into what it must have been like for Jesus to enter a world completely unaware of who he was.

Christians here do celebrate Christmas, and churches have special services and meals together during the season. But it's really, really different from how we do it back home. I feel the temptation to lament how believers here don't "do Christmas right" or have any familiar ways of celebrating the day. But this attitude limits my view of Christmas to my own narrow cultural perspective. Even Advent itself, which I treasure and am practicing this year, and gift-giving are singularly Western inventions. Christmas can't be limited to one set of traditions. Its meaning extends so far past that.

I live in a Buddhist culture that has no cultural history of celebrating Christmas. I have to be intentional about recognizing the entrance of my Savior into the world. But isn't this something all believers must wrestle with? To look beyond the external veneer of the material world - whether it be poverty or material excess - and see Jesus?

So my desire this Christmas is not to recreate my family traditions or the nostalgic emotions that my culture's practices evoke in me. My desire is to see Jesus and to open my heart to his coming - his daily presence that he offers me, made possible by the fact that he entered my world. And now, he can enter my heart. That's what Christmas means to this expat.

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