Ten Thanksgivings. Nine Christmases. That is a lot of holidays to spend without family. It spans a young child becoming a teen or a teen becoming a young adult. Ten Thanksgivings without grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins equals a decade of memories not made. Nine Christmas’s apart is not a frivolous moment in time, but instead it represents a depth of understanding and experience. This is what our lives of living overseas has cost. 8 of those in Indonesia, and the latter in Lebanon. Those holidays have stretched us, as they have a way of highlighting choices made, unimaginable distance, and our unavailability. Even. To. Our. Children.
It is rather ironic that on this tenth Christmas holiday we are flying to the USA. One would think that with a national pandemic threatening to undo our fragile world, and clear advice to not gather that this would be the one holiday that we would dutifully stay. But no. Crazy as it feels, the need to be present in our 15- and 17-year old’s lives for a few weeks compels us to defy the odds. It will be a gift in time to see our young adult boys, their girls, our parents, and a few more precious relatives also. For the first time in ten long years, I can listen to the song, “I’ll be home for Christmas” and not cringe or “A Tender Tennessee Christmas” (by Amy Grant) and not hit the skip button.
Perhaps this is the first year that you find yourself where we have been the last ten. Not in the literal place, but in the reality of not being where and with whom you want to be. What is it costing you? What can you gain? What can you do to ease the pain of the loss of togetherness? Maybe these are strange questions to ask, but unless you want to put your head in the sand and ignore your heart, they deserve an honest answer.
In the last ten years we have done some very odd things on these holidays. One Christmas we packed up the 6 of us and headed to a remote tropical beach. For three nights we camped. Alone. It proved to be a pivotal time in our family, when the kids voiced, that they never wanted to go camping again without friends. I remember Darron and I looking at each other and recognizing that we had crossed this moment in time, and we were no longer enough for our children. They needed friends present.
Another Christmas we navigated a building project in rural Papua, Indonesia with a group of visiting volunteer young adults. Christmas day morale dipped low as the mud and work highlighted the void of tradition and warm memories each had. However, by night fall they rallied with “special” food, games, and banter.
One Thanksgiving we met with our chosen family (friends overseas) and because someone was running late, we ate dessert first. We laughed and giggled like naughty children. When it was time to eat the main courses, none of us were hungry…but we still ate and remembered for years. This last Christmas eve we gathered the University students who could not travel and went caroling. At each home people pressed goodies into our hands until our tummies could take no more.
As I glance back, I recognize that despite the pain and loss there was a richness that could not be obtained had we stayed in our home country all those years. Instead, we were forced to press beyond our circumstances and make the best of it. One of the sweetest gains was the change in focus and the simplicity of the holidays. No longer could anything be covered up with layers of wrapping paper and gifts, instead it was simply us and the memories we chose to make. I have discovered that the best antidote for holiday misery is to look outside of myself and figure out a way that I can bless, serve, or be with others that need love (including myself).
Even this last Thanksgiving Day (2020) we had to work and the separation from our kids seemed paramount. I could not help but scold myself as I struggled with feelings of loss. “Ruth, after 10 years, you should have this all figured out”. However, every season puts something new in our lap, like an empty nest and a pandemic. Getting goodies and snacks to the local university girl’s dorm for their movie night helped ease the pain. Then gathering with a few close friends over the weekend reminded us that our chosen family is essential to our mental health and thriving oversea.
So, with masks donned and social distance used we will be with those that hold parts of our very DNA, on our tenth Christmas of overseas living. Prayers will cover our time together, asking for a hedge of protection from something we all wish would go away. The moments will be a treasure that will be more precious than any gift that could be given.
May your holiday be bright and filled with peace, strength, and love, despite whatever is threatening to undo it. If you find yourself grieving broken traditions and togetherness, it is my hope that these words will inspire you. May you press outside of your tradition of normal and find a way to ease the emptiness you may be feeling.
It will delight me if you leave answers to my questions in the comments. What is it costing you? What can you gain? What can you do to ease the pain of the loss of togetherness? OR what you will do to navigate this unusual holiday season?
Allah Makom. God Bless all of you!