What makes Christmas, Christmas? Is it the gift giving? Is it watching the ABC Family 25 Days of Christmas movie marathon? Is it attending a church service? Is it a particular meal with your family? Is it caroling or listening to your favorite winter song on repeat for the whole month? Is it lights and trees and gingerbread men?
I was talking with one of my host brothers just a few days before Christmas and he was asking about the traditions that my family and I have surrounding the holidays and in particular Christmas. I went on to walk him through our “typical” Christmas: the house is usually decorated (at least inside), we head off to church on Christmas Eve for the 7pm candlelight service (although my family is usually helping out at several of the services that evening so we’re probably at the church itself by 4pm), after the 7 o’clock service we stop by my Aunt’s house for some light evening snacks and time to just relax (when we were kids we always got to open one present on Christmas Eve, the rest had to wait for the next morning), then we head home and to bed. On Christmas morning my mom always makes a nice breakfast and we leisurely sit around opening gifts. My aunt and cousin come over in the early afternoon and we all make dinner and just spend some quality time together. For us there was never a particular book that had to be read or song to be sung or movie to be watched. Those are all wonderful traditions but my family is small and we enjoy the simplicity of conversation and just being with one another.
I think in his question, my host brother was looking for something tangible to be recreated here to make it feel more like the Christmas I’m used to. I didn’t do a very good job of giving him ideas since it really is for us about celebrating together with people that we love. I was already sure that South Africa was going to provide that kind of atmosphere for me and boy, Kimberley certainly didn’t disappoint. My new South African family is a family with flexible boundaries that also includes some of our closest friends. We attended church on Christmas morning and then ran home to finish a few things for our Christmas lunch (one of my brothers works a night shift from 4pm-midnight so we ate early so he could join us). Our pastor and his wife were originally supposed to be out of town and when plans changed they were looking for others to spend the day with. We went on collecting friends in the days leading up to Christmas in such a way that our family of 9 became 21 and we outgrew the capacity of our home. We became a party on wheels bringing plates, glasses, silverware, and copious amounts of food across town to our Pastor’s home. It was a beautiful, hot, sunny day full of love and laughter and celebration and prayer and thanksgiving. I was truly blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful people and in the end, it was just like any Christmas I would have at home. It wasn’t about gifts, it was instead about spending time with those that are important to you whether they are related to you by blood or not. After all, we are all family in Christ, brothers and sisters, even across oceans.
This Christmas season was a wonderful reminder of that. I have found that in the USA, the miracle of Jesus’ birth can sometimes be lost in the hustle and bustle of sales at popular stores and the need to find just the right gift. I feel as though this is something that most of us have known for a while, and yet we continue to play into the marketing schemes. Sure, maybe we go to church but even there I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone say that they know the story backwards and forwards and what’s the point to hearing it again. People tune out, they don’t look to hear something new in the reminder of the incredible thing we are celebrating. South Africa for me was a breath of fresh air this year. Months before Christmas I had asked a family member if they even did a gift exchange and the response was that kids usually got a few gifts but really there weren’t these great exchanges as we seem to have in the States. My St. Luke’s community came to church and although it was earlier than normal and they’ve heard the story a thousand times, they listened intently to the lay preacher. I was even trying to listen intently – dying to understand but probably only picking up a very small fraction of what was said. But in the end, when we gathered over a meal, the prayers and the toasts that were offered were of thanksgiving for the life and ministry of Jesus and his ultimate sacrifice for us and for the bonds created in faith that allowed such a family of believers to come together to celebrate the occasion.
I have never had a white Christmas and Florida is typically much warmer than most states on Christmas day, so the summertime temperatures in Africa really didn’t seem all that strange to me. I found all I needed to bake an apple pie and a couple of desserts that I usually spend Christmas morning baking with my mom and brought those along to share with my new extended family. I was thankful for the technology that allowed my parents to call me when Christmas morning reached them and to share how I had spent my day. But, most importantly, I was still surrounded by family who helped to remind me what the Christmas season is really all about – the seemingly crazy way that God chose to send his Son, our Savior, to us as a baby, with first time parents who were probably just as scared and nervous as new parents today. He grew and acknowledged every person as his brother and sister and was willing to die on their behalf, on our behalf. Today, we are still that family of believers – no matter our latitude and longitude, who our parents are, whether we have gifts or no gifts and food or no food under our trees and on our tables when we remember the day. We must always be that family with flexible borders who isn’t afraid to bring in those who are without and share with them the love that was shared with us the day Jesus was born.
Christmas in a Semi-Arid Desert in the Summer? Yep, done that and loved every second of it.