Christmas is a unique time of the year when we get to gather with family and friends, talk openly about Jesus with those who normally may not listen, and celebrate the incarnation of Jesus. We have all kinds of memories and traditions wrapped up with the holiday, and for many people, the season is one of their favorite parts of the year.
For the last 8 years, we have lived outside our home country, far away from our families and traditions that feel familiar. Living overseas in an area where Christians are a minority comes with several unique joys and challenges.
Two of the Greatest Joys of Celebrating Christmas Overseas
Focus on the Main Thing
When you’re living in a place where Christmas is not a major holiday, it is much easier to focus on Jesus. The typical North American Christmas season comes with so many distractions that keep us from marveling over the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Family obligations, Christmas parties, gifts, and decorations can crowd out deep meditation on Christ.
We have known Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists who enjoy Christmas trees and Santa Claus and are more than happy to follow the West in the commercial aspects of Christmas devoid of any real meaning.
Because we are somewhat distanced from many of the cultural elements of a Western Christmas, we are free to more carefully reflect upon the wonder of God taking on flesh for us.
Ironically, as a minor holiday, it is much easier to focus and meditate on the wonder of the incarnation, both as a family and with the church. Because we are somewhat distanced from many of the cultural elements of a Western Christmas, we are free to more carefully reflect upon the wonder of God taking on flesh for us.
When you celebrate Christmas overseas, you are able to experience the real family feeling of celebrating with the church. Many people where we now live have been cut off or ostracized from their families because of their decision to follow Jesus. This is a sad reality and one that requires much care and counseling, but it means that as we celebrate, the joyful praise of the church is the main event for Christmas rather than feeling like an add-on.
The primary celebration of Christmas is not in individual homes around a tree, but as the people of God, gathered around the Word.
The primary celebration of Christmas is not in individual homes around a tree, but as the people of God, gathered around the Word. When we share a Christmas meal, it isn’t just with our family, but with the whole church. This has been a sweet blessing, one which gives a foretaste of home.
Two of the Most Difficult Challenges of Celebrating Christmas Overseas
Where we live, Christmas comes after a long string of major religious festivals. It is often difficult for young believers to abstain from these celebrations. Local festivities carry much of the cultural weight that Thanksgiving and Christmas might have for those in North America. They are perhaps felt even more deeply in a strong communal culture. This means that many believers want Christmas to replace the celebrations they had in their old lives.
We often face challenges of formalism; where locals want to replace the law of their old religion with a new law. Similarly, there is a temptation to see Christmas as a counterpart to other religious festivals where local believers compare it to how Hindus have Diwali. Even more so, there is a further temptation to celebrate as a way to gain what has been “lost” by not celebrating the old festival rather than starting with the reason that we have to celebrate.
Missing Family and Familiarity
Though we experience great joy in proclaiming Christ at Christmas among people who have not heard, it is easy for our minds to think of past Christmas celebrations and all of the things that come with it. Christmas reminds us of everything that we left to come here, but the sacrifice is more than worth it.
Christ, who left his home for us, has not only made a way for us to know him and be declared righteous before the Father, but he is even now preparing a home for us.
Christ is worthy of infinitely more than we can give, but the sacrifice is real, and we feel it more at this time of year. However, even these feelings come with a sweet Christmas reminder. Christ, who left his home for us, has not only made a way for us to know him and be declared righteous before the Father, but he is even now preparing a home for us.
There is a temptation to be homesick for home, but even that ache can push us to sanctified homesickness, longing for the return of our God who became a man so that we might forever be at home with him.