24: Celebrating Christmas Away from Home

24: Celebrating Christmas Away from Home

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas Magic

Celebrating Christmas Away from Home

Christmas is a time when you get homesick—even when you’re home.

~Carol Nelson

I stood misty-eyed on our apartment balcony, my back to my husband, trying not to cry while I stared at our sunny December view of the Mediterranean Sea. How I wished I were back in California. Gordon came and stood beside me, his hand on my shoulder. I turned to face him, then choked out the words. “It just doesn’t feel like Christmas. Not here in Beirut, so far away from home.”

I snuggled into his shoulder and let my tears flow. “I thought being so close to Israel would make Christmas brighter, more real. Bethlehem actually seems farther away than it did when we lived in the U.S.”

We joined hands as we walked into our living room and sank onto the couch. I wasn’t through talking yet. “Because we live in an Arab Christian neighborhood, I expected to enjoy our usual Christmas experience,” I grumbled. “I was so wrong.”

My voice rose as I began to list all the missing seasonal signs. “Families don’t decorate the outside of their houses for Christmas. No Christmas tree lights shine from our neighbors’ apartment windows. No Christmas carols are playing in the background as we shop. No Christmas cantatas are advertized. No manger scenes. Plus we’ll miss the family Christmas party. Buying a live Christmas tree with that pleasant, fragrant smell is out of the question here because trees are too precious to cut down. It will be impossible to decorate that skinny, artificial tree we bought to resemble last year’s gorgeous fir.”

I slumped lower on the couch. “It’s going to be a bleak Christmas without the trimmings.”

Gordon nodded as he softly rubbed my hand in his. “We’re obviously going to have to generate our own Christmas mood. Since our kids are so young, they have no preconceived ideas about how to celebrate Christmas. We’ve got to create traditions for them to remember. Christmas customs that work for all of us no matter where we live.”

He watched me closely. “What part of our traditional Christmas celebration seems most important to you?”

I looked down at the floor and allowed memories of past Christmases to flood my mind. I raised my eyes and lifted up a finger for each point. “Being with family and friends. Singing Christmas carols. Sharing a Christmas Day meal with pumpkin and pecan pies for dessert. Playing the White Elephant game with adults on Christmas Eve.”

He nodded his head. “Think about it. We can initiate traditions that include sharing food and playing our favorite gift exchange game right here in Beirut.” He walked over to the desk and returned to the couch with a tablet and pen.

“We don’t have family here,” he continued, “but we do have new friends. How many people will our living room hold?”

“Probably twenty-four.”

The list-making began. Eventually, twenty-two friends received invitations to a Christmas Eve buffet. Instructions for the evening included wearing something red and bringing a wrapped white elephant present for a gift exchange game. The British and Australian couples laughed when we described that a white elephant gift meant giving away something you already owned, with no “to or from” stickers required. “It wouldn’t be proper to bring a used item as a gift where we come from,” they explained. Getting into the spirit, they brought “old” gifts.

Christmas music played in the background as our guests arrived on Christmas Eve.

We played a couple of “get-to-know-you” games and feasted from the buffet. After we ate I started the white elephant gift exchange game. After I initiated a two-minute-only swapping rule, the room turned into a grabbing, lurching, uproar as our guests rushed around after every gift was opened, trying to swap what they held for their preferred item.

The evening ended with us plopped down on couches, chairs, and the carpet, singing Christmas carols and listening to the Apostle Luke’s Christmas story. Verse seven resounded with the essence of Christmas: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger” (KJV). We felt the bond of love that Jesus gives to those who follow him.

It was close to midnight before our last guests left, prized (or maybe not) gifts in tow, many loudly vowing to plan a better strategy for next year’s game. I pulled off my heels and flopped down on the couch. Gordon soon joined me, a big grin lighting up his face.

“You have to admit this room’s been saturated with Christmas cheer,” he commented.

“That’s true,” I replied with a smile.

We sat silently, reveling in the moment. “You know what?” Gordon said. “With this new Christmas party tradition established, I don’t think we’ll ever need to worry about how to celebrate Christmas again.”

I slowly nodded my head. He was so right. We’d done it! We’d learned how to celebrate Christmas away from home.

~Pat Stockett Johnston

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