We have a tradition of putting up the tree and Christmas decorations during the weekend after Thanksgiving. It’s a common tradition in the USA. We try to keep as many of our American traditions overseas as we can, in an effort to honor our own heritage and culture and family, and as a way to share and teach those things to Sarah, our daughter has who only lived 3 of her 15 years in the USA. It’s a way to keep her connected to her American culture and family.
We also have a mix of Peruvian and Spain traditions that now weave in to the tapestry of our lives. We will eat chili on Christmas Eve, just like our family has always done in Texas. We will also have panettone sweet bread and hot chocolate, just like we did with our Peruvian neighbors. In the kitchen as I write, there is a heap of cinnamon mantecado cookies, a traditional Christmas treat in Spain - Sarah’s favorite. And tomorrow we will spend the afternoon with some of our neighbors at a flamenco Christmas lunch.
Christmas is always different and strange and a little bit hard for us. It’s always a time of mixing old traditions with the new, remembering Christmases past, and struggling through the grief of being far away from loved ones. But it’s also a time of learning new customs and doing things in new and different ways.
Last year, we kind-of missed Christmas in Spain… it just disappeared. We had just moved in to this house last November and we weren’t even unpacked well yet when a terrible flu swept through Spain and knocked us off our feet for weeks. The three of us literally spent Christmas in our pajamas for days, curled up on the couch with Kleenex and blankets and medications, not able to eat anything, and feeling like death would be preferable to the aches and coughing and Billy’s two emergency room visits for breathing treatments and chest x-rays. We didn’t even shop for gifts. We just let Christmas pass us by and prayed for relief.
We did recover (obviously), and we were able to travel to Texas to see family and meet our new granddaughter, Lily. So, our Christmas holiday was redeemed in January!
This year, we are settled in our home and neighborhood and the house is decorated and ready. We were the only people on our block with a tree up at the end of November! Christmas customs are a little different here and the idea of decorating the house quite so much for Christmas definitely sets us apart. But here’s the great part… IT’S DIFFERENT! On most days, we try to fit in and NOT be different. But during the holidays, different is a big plus! It’s a great way to start conversations!
Just last week, someone came over for coffee and pastries in the afternoon. Part way through our time together, he pointed to our stockings and said, “They all have your names on them. Did you buy the names separately, or how did you get the names on them?” (The custom of stockings is not a tradition here, but they know about it a little bit from TV and American movies.) This was one of those open-door moments when I got to share about my family and the stockings that were handmade and beaded by my great-grandmother, then how the tradition passed down and my aunt made the family stockings for years, and how it fell to me by the time that Sarah was born. So, our mantle and our stockings are a glimpse in to family history and generations of tradition.
We have had people notice our advent wreath and candles and wonder about that. Here, that has been traditionally only a catholic observance and the fact that a protestant celebrates advent is different and cause for conversation.
Even our tree has caused conversation over the years. Some are surprised that we even have a tree, because many protestants do not have Christmas trees or decorations… so we are different. Again, the “party lines” have been pretty strongly divisive here with regards to Catholicism and Protestant believers. And don’t forget the growing number of nominal believers, marginalized believers, and non-believers. So, the fact that we have different customs has opened doors to those conversations about belief and faith, form and meaning and tradition. And the fact that we have nativity scenes from different cultures – those have been conversation starters, for sure!
Next weekend, we will break with cultural norms (again!) and have an Open House Christmas Party for our neighbors. Christmas is a family holiday here. Christmas here is celebrated much like Thanksgiving is in the USA – extended family travels to the big family gathering and there is a giant family feast on Christmas Eve. There really are no Christmas parties among friends in private homes. Office workers may have a dinner together at a restaurant but going to an individual’s home is just not the norm. But we’re going for it. We’ve invited folks from our street to come over and enjoy party foods and each other’s company.
“If it’s not the norm, then what makes you think they’ll come?” Because it’s DIFFERENT! Curiosity. Just the fact that people don’t invite people in to their homes makes this interesting. Only 2 of our neighbors on our block have ever been in our home. We’re confident and can’t wait! We’re hoping that this is the beginning of new conversations and deeper relationships with our neighbors. We’re stepping out and breaking down barriers to build bridges. Please pray for this time of connection with our neighbors on December 22nd.
Christmas and holidays are perfect times to reach out. People want and need connection. And Christmas can be a time of loneliness and isolation for some. Invite someone over for Christmas cookies and coffee. Invite a few neighbors over. Or take them a cookie or a muffin and a Christmas card. Just do something to break down barriers and build bridges. Love your neighbors.
Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad!
Who am I? In my USA life, I was a teacher in Texas for 15 years. I was also a professional photographer, a Southern Living / Martha Stewart wannabe, a soccer mom, and a short term mission team coordinator / intern director for missions in Mexico... you name it, I probably tried it!
In 2006, my husband Billy and I became cross-cultural workers (CCWs) with TMS Global. For five years, we served in three rural Quechua Wanca villages in the Andes of Peru. And when I say rural, I mean RURAL - like no potty! We have three incredible children... two adult boys who live in Texas, and the Sarah (14) lives with us in whatever country we are serving. I'm still teaching, still taking photos, still leading teams and mentoring, I just do it all in full-time service now! And I'm working hard at giving Southern Living and Martha Stewart a run for their money! I spent my days in Peru learning to live a Quechua lifestyle in a rustic adobe house - cooking Peruvian foods, sewing with Quechua women, raising my chickens and goats and pigs, and planting my gardens. Now I live my life in small town Spain, serving other cross-cultural workers and immigrant peoples, writing, and trying to figure out what life looks like for a Texas girl serving Christ in Southern Europe. Life in His service is AWESOME! I'm happy to share it with you here... Enjoy!