I decided not to write this on the holiday itself as a “Merry Christmas, everyone!” post; I was afraid that, if my post came out of the midst of my roiling Christmas Day emotions, it would sound too melancholy, depressed, or bitter. Because celebrating Christmas in another country is hard. I’ve only done it twice, but this is the pattern I’ve noticed: as December rolls around and the temperatures are still in the 70s, I decide I need to take matters into my own hands and to create the Christmas spirit that isn’t being poured down my throat like it would be in America. So I go on a crafting frenzy, snipping away at little triangles of folded paper until I have enough snowflakes to coat every wall in my house. Probably twice. I actually bake things, attempting to replicate my mom’s recipes with the ingredients available in Israel. I succeed greatly with some recipes. I throw a lot of rock-hard cookie-ish blobs in the trash. I secretly access Pandora, tricking my computer into thinking I’m in the United States so that I can listen to Christmas music in the background of everything I’m doing.
And then, about a week before the 25th, I start to wonder if I’ve taken entirely the wrong approach. Maybe it would’ve been better to let myself forget Christmas a little bit. Maybe I should’ve just let it slide by like any other day. Because my paper snowflakes can’t compare to the red and green and gold tablecloth we always put out in December, or the ribbon angel that’s hung on the back of our door for every Christmas I can remember. My cookies – despite my jubilant pride over the ones that actually turn out – are nothing like my mom’s or brother’s, and I’m nowhere near confident enough to attempt our Christmas morning chocolate chip coffee cake. And stupid Pandora will NOT stop playing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” None of these things really assault me that terribly, but each further reminds me of the real problem: I will be spending Christmas 5,000 miles from everyone who really knows and loves me. And that’s just hard. And it tends to make me temporarily forget the happy, exciting, fun moments of the last few months and to focus on all the sad ones: every time I felt lonely or directionless or needed a hug and didn’t have someone to hug me. Because those moments will exist here and there when living abroad, regardless of how satisfied I may be with my overall experience.
But there are other moments, too, that appear during Christmastime abroad. Little patches of cozy Christmas warmth that, though entirely removed and distinct from the traditional warm and fuzzies of the American holiday season, still make me smile and shake my head in wonder and gratitude for this place and time in life. Like… watching the annual Christmas parade march through the streets of downtown Nazareth, my body being jostled back and forth by the families trying to get a better view, the countless tiny children in full Santa costumes on their fathers’ shoulders shrieking as their eyes light up with excitement, “Baba Noel! Baba Noel! Mama, huwwa ha’ee’ee??? (Santa Clause! Santa Clause! Mama, is he real???)” It doesn’t matter how many men of varying height, complexion, hair color, and jolliness they saw dressed in the red suit and white beard; every time, the same elated cry.
Or watching the Rudolph Christmas special late one night with a volunteer from Taiwan and a Muslim coworker from Nazareth, pausing every few minutes to explain the plot and suddenly realizing how many complete absurdities I had apparently overlooked for years. The stop motion animation that I have absorbed with nonjudgmental adoration every year as a child, when seen through fresh (adult) eyes and actually explained plot-point by plot-point, is surprisingly ridiculous. Nevertheless, the process of discovering this at least makes for a warm evening of togetherness and laughter.
Or sitting at the inn two nights before Christmas with Yafit as the maintenance man and the electrician, both called in to work late in the evening, try to fix the hot water that rarely functions quite right in this atmospheric but somewhat decrepit part of town. Yafit suggests I put on some background music for the big, drafty reception hall; as I cue up an arbitrary version of “Silent Night,” I notice an irregular echo and realize that, in the middle of a frustrated text to his wife to tell her he won’t be home for dinner, the electrician has absentmindedly begun to sing along in Arabic. In the midst of a chaotic evening of inexplicable malfunctions and disgruntled guests, he fiddles with wires and murmurs, “Silent night. Holy night. All is calm; all is bright.”
Or dropping off to sleep after working the late night shift on Christmas Eve and realizing that, over the course of the day, I’ve been wished a sincere and heartfelt “Merry Christmas!” by four Jewish friends and five Muslim friends, usually accompanied by a big hug, while one of my Arab Christian coworkers even came back after her shift was done, running through the dark streets of the old market with a tray full of food so that she could share her family’s Christmas dinner with me.
Bittersweet is a pretty wonderful word; and, though perhaps a little melodramatic, the inherent contrast in the adjective more or less aptly describes the foreign Christmas experience for me. But it was just a light, passing bittersweetness. Not that 70% or 80% cocoa stuff – just the concentration of a normal dark chocolate. (I’m sorry. I know that was terrible.) Because, as I woke up on December 26 and stared out my window at the city Jesus would inhabit for most of His life, I was comfortable moving past the holiday with minimal pomp and simply continuing my life. I wanted to think that the removal from the traditions and ceremonies surrounding the holiday allowed me to focus more clearly on the birth of my Savior, but I’m not sure it did. As I set out into the days following the holiday, however, I felt that the simultaneous bitterness and sweetness of Christmas in Nazareth had helped me instead to focus on characterizing each little moment with an appreciation of the sweetness of this place and time He’s given me, regardless of a bit of bitterness here and there.