Pain and Glory
I can still hear the tone in her voice as she asked me, “Could we do Christmas together this year? We were SO lonely last year.” I had only been in the Philippines about 30 minutes, after having fast-tracked through immigration and found our bags. There were our college-mates, waiting outside. Between holding tight to children (hers and mine), dragging bags, trying to follow the guy who tracked us through customs, and fending off the over-eager taxi drivers, I was not sure I had heard her right. It was only the middle of October.
Christmas does things to us when we leave our home, family, and culture. Christmas cuts to the core of loneliness and loss. Christmas, like breakfast, is uniquely personal. We all have a “way we do Christmas,” and often that “way” includes places that are familiar. Christmas is about the most glorious season in the year, but it can be the least glorious and the most painful if we are far from all that had made it wonderful for us in the past.
I had not yet really pondered Christmas. Yes, I would be far from home, but I had my husband and children. We would MAKE Christmas happen. This was at least partly due to the fact that I had grown up in a family which never tied Christmas to a place, because none of our extended family lived near us. Christmas often meant a train trip to Florida, or a flight to Kansas, or a drive to New England from our mid-Atlantic home. “Home for Christmas” generally meant a novel experience, but that did not make Christmas any less special.
That first Christmas on the other side of the world was a new step in mobile Christmases. It began with hearing Christmas carols on our first Sunday—in a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor. Somehow, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” was a little ludicrous in the tropics, even with the air conditioning on full blast.
We had no Christmas tree, so we made one out of strips of green ribbon. We had no decorations, so we crafted a nativity scene out of scraps of fabric, glue, and Popsicle sticks. Two of those little figures still rest quietly in the bottom of my Christmas décor box—not that I use them now, but each year they bring a flood of memories. Presents were few because it was too far and too expensive to send much, but there was enough.
The capstone was our joint Christmas celebration with friends who invited us to share Christmas with them. We had been friends before, but we had not been particularly close. We certainly had never celebrated Christmas together. Now we chose to be family. We shared ideas from our various pasts and created a Christmas—in fact, three successive Christmases—that our adult children still remember. The first year they had a tree with lights, and my children were entranced. The next year we had a tree that my parents had sent in small bits and pieces all year, and we all were entranced. The last year together we drove over the mountains, away from the city, through mountain barrios where bravely-decorated little palm branches were shining in each tiny mountain house we passed. Somehow we fabricated a plum pudding that was fantastic (and has never been replicated).
It was the beginning of several important life lessons. The first was that Christmas is portable. It can happen anywhere if you are willing work at it, and each place you celebrate leaves an imprint in your memory. Over the years of transitory living we learned to have a few small things that said “Christmas” to all of us. All my daughters play Filipino music while decorating their trees. There are also some rather ugly, but serviceable and packable, stockings that have been hung in all sorts of places to be filled with goodies.
A second lesson is that Christmas does not have to be the same every year. We have memories of digging Christmas out of a box, left by a sweet single global woman whose flat we were renting in Hong Kong. We lovingly pulled out the things she had told us to use, and then we added some more goodies to it before we packed it away. We also brought home a few Chinese satin treasures that still grace our tree.
Another year we celebrated with our daughter’s in-laws in Africa. Opening gifts was hilarious and crazy, because we had all determined to spend as little money as possible so there was nothing to carry home. A jar of olives, a chocolate bar, or a bottle of bitters was given with great ceremony—and quickly consumed. We had visited a posh safari hotel with pompous waiters, so at Christmas dinner, my son-in-law’s father played the waiter and set the table with every single piece of flatware they owned. That was 15 years ago, but all one of us has to do is put a towel over an arm and silverware in the hand, and we all laugh in memory of “Mr. Rolly.”
On my mother’s last Christmas, we drove to her place six hundred miles away. She had said, “No tree,” and we agreed. Her pastor, however, thought that was terrible, and we arrived to find a fresh tree by the door. She had NO decorations, so we bought one string of twinkle lights, and the kids all set to work fashioning snowflakes with white paper and scissors. It was gorgeous.
Another lesson I learned was that Christmas is a time to share, not to hoard. My friend who plaintively asked if we could share Christmas with them started an avalanche of friendship that has continued for decades. Together we have weathered hardship, distance, pain, sorrow, and loss. We have prayed for each other, consoled each other, prayed for each other’s kids, and lived alongside each other, even though we have never lived anywhere near each other.
Years after our first Christmas together her husband fell into sin, and they had returned from overseas. When he continued to deceive her, she made the hard decision to leave him. It was near Christmas, and she was in the depths of loneliness once again. Her adult sons were reeling from the pain in their family. I wrote and said, “Come, share Christmas with us.”
It was a small, intimate Christmas, with bitter cold, wood fires, and long walks. There also was Filipino music and rich memories of warmth, palm trees, and better times. It was a Christmas of healing and deep meaning as we pondered the Word-Made-Flesh: the God-of-the-Universe leaving all that was familiar and comfortable and being born in a bleak corner of Israel with shepherds the only ones seeming to celebrate His arrival.
Christmas. We want it to be glorious, but in truth, Christmas was not glorious for God the Father. It was separation, and an understanding that pain was coming. Mary too pondered these things in her heart. May our Christmas, wherever in the world God has put us, be one where we share life with whomever God has near us, bask in the light of Bethlehem’s star, and recognize that pain and glory can live side by side.
Question to consider: What are some of the fun ways you have celebrated Christmas where you live?
About the author
Anna McShane* directs an English program and lectures at a large public university in China. Over four decades with SEND International www.send.org, she traveled as a journalist in all of SEND’s 20 areas. She can also be found speaking to women’s conferences and sharing her life with college students. In addition to writing for THRIVE, you can find her at: www.themissionsblog.org/author/anna-mcshane/ and www.whileiwasgoing.blogspot.com *for security reasons, this is not her actual name.View all articles by: Anna McShane
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