Dreaming of a different Christmas . . .
From forest fires to ‘funeral’ lights, Mags Storey finds out how three women from very different parts of the world celebrate Jesus' birth
Christmas at my parents’ house is a picture postcard of everything one expects the holiday to be. From the fluffy white snow and graceful fir trees outside the window, to the handmade stockings hung over the roaring log fire, December in northern Ontario, Canada provides the kind of setting Christmas carols are written about. We can even get sleigh rides at a nearby farm.
But for me, one of the most important Christmases was the year we went without all that. We had just moved to the Middle East, swapping our usual snow for desert sand. The Christmas gifts and treats so lovingly purchased and shipped ahead of time failed to arrive. We relied on the kindness of friends that year, and were reminded that Christ’s arrival on earth had little to do with the snow and sleigh bells Bing Crosby sung about.
I recently asked three women who live in warmer climates, and would never find their picture of Christmas on a greeting card, about what makes the holiday special for them.
Fairy lights and subterfuge
Manila, The Philippines
“Christmas is a really big deal in the Philippines and everyone strings white fairy lights outside, turning even the dingiest street into a twinkling fairyland. Some communities also have competitions to create the most beautiful giant parol, which are star-shaped paper or shell lanterns.
“Our decorations got us in big trouble 20 years ago. We had just moved here from Scotland and innocently strung fairy lights around our living room window. Imagine our surprise when we heard colleagues were worried that one of us had died! Apparently only funeral parlours use fairy lights inside here. So now our Christmas lights go on the trees and bushes outside our house.
“In our first year here, our adopted Filipino family gave us a local version of a Christmas tree. It’s a collection of white-painted twigs stuck into a bamboo container, and hung with miniature versions of baskets and sweeping brushes.
“The traditional Filipino style is to eat a big family Noche Buena meal at midnight on Christmas Eve, but we tend to have a quick cup of cocoa after the Watchnight service and collapse into bed. The Filipino specialties at this time of year are leche flan (a variation of crème caramel) and huge watermelon – the vivid red fruit inside the dark green skin is a delicious way to enjoy the traditional colours of Christmas.
“On Christmas Eve, our family read the Christmas story aloud in a circle by candlelight. We also have a tradition of trying to capture the “surprise silent giving” that lies behind the original Father Nicholas story, and indeed the biblical event. So every year our girls make homemade secret stockings for someone from our community who might be needing an extra touch of love.
“The aim is to deliver these without being spotted. Creeping around in the dark to hang these on doorknobs has always been a source of much giggling – but I don't think anyone has ever figured out exactly the source of their surprise Christmas stocking. I hope none of the recipients read this article!
“We are surrounded by street kids and squatter families here in Manila, which has forced a major change in our thinking about giving. Our mission also regularly distributes food and clothing gifts to various squatter communities each Christmas. We put the food in plastic buckets, so that when all the food is gone they can still use the pail.
“Our family also packs up small bags with ‘gifts’ like sweets and toothbrushes, which we give out to the children who beg at the intersections on our way to church. For those who can read, we enclose a brief printed explanation of how much Jesus loves them.”
Time to Forgive
“We have a big family celebration every year when my four siblings, their families, my husband and I, and our three daughters all get together at my parent’s house. Sometimes our extended family join us too.
“For me, getting together with family to celebrate love and life is my favourite part of Christmas. For us it’s a time of re-union and reconciliation, and whatever grudges we might have are cancelled at Christmas.
“We always play music and dance. We also laugh and tease each other a lot. Our family can make a Christmas tree out of anything, although we usually use a bushy paraffin tree. It usually rains a little on Christmas morning, and I have always hoped that one day I will get to spend Christmas in a country where it snows.
“We start celebrating at Christmas Eve, sometimes staying up all night to talk together. Then we celebrate together all Christmas day too. I guess the climax of our celebration is the huge lunch we have right after church on Christmas day. It can't be Christmas without rice and chicken, coleslaw salad and fizzy drink, and everyone helps with the cooking – even the men!
“We have a tradition in our part of Africa of always wearing new clothes on Christmas day. We have a saying that goes: ‘When it’s Christmas in Africa you have to look your best.’ When we were children, we were always really excited to see everyone’s new clothes at church, and whenever we couldn’t afford to have new clothes we dreaded going!
“Unfortunately, my parents have not been feeling very well recently, and so we are praying that God will help them feel the joy of Christmas this year.
Fighting fires and welcoming friends
“My parents always invite friends to join us for Christmas. I’m with YWAM and sometimes I also bring home some of the missionary young people who can't be with their own families over the holiday. My mum even buys extra gifts just in case extra people show up!
“Some years we use a pine tree with lots of ornaments and lights, but others we use a native Aussie gum tree – which smells really good. My family often have a barbecue with special Christmas ice cream or traditional Australian pavlova.
“Some years it has been so hot that we spent all day and night in the pool, but sadly there have been water restrictions in recent years because of the drought. My father is a volunteer fire fighter in the Country Fire Authority and, since Christmas in Australia is in the midst of summer, our celebrations are often interrupted by fire turnouts. Last year there was a major forest fire that burned from central Victoria to the coast line, so on Christmas Day my Dad couldn’t leave the house in case he was called on as a relief crew to help fight the fire. This is a fairly common Christmas event for my family. We have had some terrible fires.
“I grew up listening to the ‘normal’ Christmas songs about snow, but we also have our own Aussie songs that I like to play. I especially like our version of Jingle Bells :
“Kelpie by my side, singing Christmas songs,
It's summer time and I am in, my singlet, shorts and thongs
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way,
Christmas in Australia, on a Scorching Summer's Day!’
“But my favourite thing about Christmas is being with my family, and I love that my whole immediate family knows God and that we can celebrate his love for us together.”