Authored by Mara Hodler
Every year I look forward to Christmas. I love how pine boughs and red ribbon transform the drab corners of a home into a cozy wonderland. Christmas music carries me to happy memories of Christmases past and fills me with anticipation for the season. Each year, as I decorate and put up our tree, I am amazed at all that has passed in the days since I last decorated. No matter where the year has taken me, it culminates in this familiar season of joy and sharing.
Growing up, our Christmases were not traditional. We didn’t have the expectation of gifts or the demand for a specific menu. We didn’t expect snow or a white Christmas. We weren’t stuck on which language we would sing our favorite Christmas carols in. We didn’t know who we would share Christmas with. Some years we had a tree; some years we did not. I have spent Christmas in more than a dozen countries: Portugal, Canada, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, China, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland, the US, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Mexico.
Some of these countries have a rich history of Christmas traditions, and some of them have the dire absence of any sort of Christmas at all, like northern mainland China (when I was there in 1984). Some countries celebrate Christmas in ways that were familiar to me, and some were totally new and unfamiliar. Some Christmases we were bundled up around a fireplace (or just bundled up without a fireplace or even heating), and other years we went swimming on Christmas day.
All through my life, Christmas had only one common ingredient: the celebration of Jesus’ birth. It was a time to remind ourselves of the great joy that came to mankind when God sent His Son to bridge the gap between us sinful humans and God’s perfection. It was the first time that the human race did not need to be afraid anymore. Salvation had come! We always celebrated His birthday by trying to bring salvation to as many as we could.
One year my family participated in a live nativity that ran for 30 nights straight. Each of us had different roles in the play and performed it in two languages each night. Another year we spent Christmas with Croatian war refugees. We’ve spent Christmases visiting orphanages, homes for the disabled, senior citizens, veterans, homeless, juvenile detention centers, prisons, schools, and universities. We brought gifts, sponsorships, treats, and Christmas cheer. We learned to speak and sing in the languages of the people we were sharing Christmas with, at least enough to offer a brief conversation and a few favorite Christmas carols. Some of my happiest memories are the personal exchanges that I had with some of the people we met over Christmas, the times I saw the impact God’s love can make on a heart that is lonely and aching.
The end of the Christmas season usually brought my family and our friends together as a tired but happy bunch, spent from a month or so of extended outreach activities. We always took a few days off at the end to celebrate with food and festivities. It was different every year. Some Christmases were lavish in their provision of food and gifts. Some Christmases the gifts were very … odd. (Who gives a six-year-old girl a book on Pope John Paul II?!) Many Christmases there were no gifts at all. Sometimes we pulled off a traditional, American-style Christmas dinner, and other years we celebrated with local traditional dinners.
There was a time when I wished our family had developed more Christmas traditions. I wanted Christmas to conjure up a cozy familiar feeling associated with meaningful rituals, events, and foods our family enjoyed. I wanted traditions we could pass on to our children. But I see it differently now. I don’t want Christmas to come in boxes of decorations we unpack each year, accompanied by a predetermined set of events, exchanges, and foods. I don’t want a Christmas of expectations, but rather one of expectancy. It’s the difference between knowing and expecting such-and-such to happen accompanied by such-and-such a feeling, and the simple expectancy of knowing that something wonderful will happen, even if I have no idea what it will be.
Jesus’ birth was full of the unexpected: journeys, shepherds, angels, soldiers. His life defied tradition and expectation as well, not the least of which was rising from the dead. Each year when His birthday rolls around, rather than trying to create a Christmas of traditions, I think we should open ourselves up to something new and unexpected.
Maybe you’ll find someone new to share Christmas with. Maybe God will lead you to someone whom you can share salvation with. Maybe you’ll come across an unexpected need and be prompted to be extra generous. Who knows? Don’t get fixed on what will be the highlight of the season. Just tell yourself that something wonderful will happen; love will be given, joy will be shared, and memories will be made.
I need this message this year. As I write this, my family has come up against a very challenging set of circumstances. The kind that does not make the future, especially the immediate future, look very bright. And I have found myself wondering how we will fit Christmas in along with everything else we’re dealing with. How can you plan and prepare when you have no idea what’s going to happen? How do you celebrate when each day seems to be laced with the lingering of unhappy circumstances? But then I remember the message the angel brought the shepherds:
“Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (This includes us too!) “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”1
That’s the overarching joy we have to share and celebrate this Christmas and every Christmas. Jesus is with us and something wonderful is going to happen.
1 Luke 2:10–11 KJV
Read by Amber Larriva. Music by sindustry(CC). Copyright© 2013 by The Family International