The Truth About Being a Missionary at Christmas
I love Christmas. My mama always called me her “Christmas girl.”
When I was growing up there was nothing like waking up at Grandma’s house on Christmas morning. The Christmas tree twinkling in the early morning hours, holiday smells wafting from the kitchen, stockings filled with treasures. Listening to my dad read the Christmas story from the Bible and thinking about Mary giving birth in the stable to Baby Jesus warmed every inch of my soul. Even crawling half asleep into a freezing cold car to go home felt like a magical part of the whole experience to me.
Yes, my mama was right. I am definitely a Christmas girl.
I’ve spent seven Christmases on the other side of the world. For the most part, they were beautifully simple, meaningful days mixed in with a whole lot of loneliness.
And I guess that’s the first thing to get out of the way when we’re talking about Christmas on the mission field.
Loneliness is an issue most missionaries face almost daily. But on Christmas, it just hurts more. And, to be totally honest, it’s just part of the deal. When we left family and friends, comforts, and our favorite snacks, Christmas — as we knew it — was gone forever, too.
Most missionaries wouldn’t trade it. In our minds and deep down in our hearts, we know that. We’re compelled by His love to be exactly where we are. And we want to be. I mean, we get to celebrate the incarnation of Christ every single day by speaking the good news of a baby born to change everything. How’s that for year-round Christmas joy?
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have moments when we yearn to be surrounded by buttery Christmas cookies and crackling fires and hot chocolate.
When I was overseas, I missed everything. I missed the lights, the music, even the feeling you get when you walk into church for the Christmas service with everyone dressed in red and smiling, while someone is playing familiar carols on the piano.
The traditions we left behind, no matter how non-essential, are genuine losses as well. Just like giving up indoor heat or your heart language or your mom and dad.
It’s a real sacrifice. It’s a genuine cost.
So, missionary, take it as a loss. Accept it. And then embrace it.
My first four Christmases overseas were spent as a single person. An extrovert at heart, being alone was not going to cut it. Without family nearby, I had to get me some fill-ins. (Just kidding. But not really.)
I invited neighbors and friends and anyone around to come for Christmas brunch and Christmas games and the Christmas story. It was a reminder and a picture of Christ calling all from the highways and byways to His feast.
I got to share some of my favorite traditions and watch friends’ joy unfold as they discovered for the first time the things I had loved for so long: neighbors trying to unwrap presents while wearing bulky mittens. Howling with laughter as a teacher tried to act out “yak” in a game of charades. Watching guests spend over an hour decorating the perfect Christmas cookie. Experiencing old traditions in new ways brought a different kind of joy.
The forced simplicity of Christmas overseas made everything that much more meaningful for me. I will always remember the years of worshiping Jesus together on Christmas with just a handful of people, who represented multiple countries. What a foretaste of glory divine!
Making new traditions became a special and helpful way for me to bring new joy and significance to the holiday season. Here are a few ideas for you:
1. Get yourself your very own “Charlie Brown Christmas tree.”
One year, it was as simple as a plant from the local market for us. I began to add my own homemade ornaments year after year to commemorate special events that happened during the year. This was pure bliss to my sentimental core and satisfied my constant desire to record and analyze the happenings of my journey.
It was a reflective and praise-giving activity to thank God for His sovereignty in it all. By the way, I am not crafty. I cut out photographs, made holes with pens and tied thread to each one.
2. Make a Christmas countdown paper chain.
I made mine with a different name for Christ quoted in the Bible for each day of Advent.
3. Make new food traditions.
Not having the traditional Christmas foods can be a big let down. We started new traditions in the area of food.
We had a Christmas Eve “snack meal” by making fun, special foods that are familiar but could be made from local ingredients. We made meatballs and homemade “nachos” and splurged on dried fruits and nuts we didn’t normally have during the year.
4. Make giving presents into something a bit different.
Set a very small dollar amount with your family or other foreign friends, and see how far you can stretch it. One of my favorite presents from my husband was a roasted duck and grapes.
5. Have a special activity you reserve for the holiday season.
For us, we put together a jigsaw puzzle each Christmas. This took some forethought, as I purchased a few of them when we were on home assignments to have them ready for Christmas.
6. Do something out of the ordinary.
We chose to blast the heaters. After being so cold for so long, we chose to ignore the cultural norms and the bill and be warm!
7. Celebrate the “family” God provides for you overseas.
Gather together and just be. Play games, laugh, talk about your family traditions at home. Celebrate God’s wisdom in having you born in the exact place He preordained, just as He sent Jesus to be born in a manger.
Wishing you joy in Christ during this Christmas season!
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8 CommentsLeave a comment
I totally know what you mean. My three and a half years in Japan where Christmas is simply a trip to KFC for couples, meant I treasured the little things so much more when I got to celebrate in my own country. One thing that blessed me in Japan was helping lead a Christmas party for children. The teacher who doesn’t know the Lord wanted me to share the story of Jesus along with the quizzes carols etc. I loved that. it became something I did for 3 years on the trot. It made Christmas special in a different way! Another thing was taking a Japanese friend for a meal in a restaurant that did Thanksgiving meals up to Christmas Day! Not totally like a British Christmas meal but ALMOST! One year I made Christmas Crackers complete with snappers, hats and jokes. It was a huge novelty. Great fun. There are ways to make it special overseas.
Thanks for the insight. My wife and I are heading out for language school and then to Chad. We will begin using these tips there. BTW is Ryan your husband?
You have a gift for expressing missionary life and challenges. Thank you for the precious reminders of how we were able to find and make new Christmas joys in the land of our sojourn. Having colleagues and friends in for a special dinner (local menu :-)) became a highlight for us. Our children enjoyed sharing that time also. May this bless many others facing Christmas in new and lonely places. God is so faithful!
Thanks for sharing, Deb! I am so proud to know you and to think back to how you brought joy to so many during those first Christmas seasons. I too, spent many Christmases away from home and as a single especially appreciated those families with young children who let me become part of their traditions. It was such a treat to know I was welcome to sit around their trees and tables, bring gifts for the kids, and just “be” a part of the whole celebration. Helping new believers in the growing church we were a part of to find traditions that were meaningful for them was also very fulfilling. I’ll never forget the first time we decided to allow all the little kids to be part of the nativity play by letting them be sheep – crawling on all fours around the “stage” wearing white head cloths.! It was a bit chaotic, but many of them remember those days with great fondness!
As parents of a single daughter in Japan 22 yrs. it also is a challenge to maintain a good outlook here in USA.
Thankful for the times she was able to get home at least a day or 2 after Christmas. HOWEVER this year she’ll be here 12/22–1/5. We call her our Happiest Hello. A few times I was able to visit to help with THANKSGIVING reach out meal for ESL & Bible study classes. Chicago to Tokyo is a long flight. Thanks for the article.
Deb, I was touched by your post. Just wanted you to know there really are people out here in the Body of Christ who care deeply about what you are doing, and, as you know cognitively, that Jesus cares, too. I hope that He touches your heart as well as your mind to assure you that you are serving and standing for Him, and this work is not in vain. Not. Ever.
Thanks for answering His call and being His hands and feet to a needy world. Merry Christmas.
Great post. I’m facing a couple of these problems.
I was born & raised on the mission field. My parents were amazing at creating our own Christmas traditions out there. For me, I never really knew anything else because those 15 Christmas’s were Christmas at home. The 3 we had on furlough were different & ok but they weren’t real Christmas to me.