There were many surprises when Mary gave birth to Jesus, including a bunch of shepherds who visited without an appointment. That first Christmas was full of unmet expectations, twists to the script, and surprises that couldn’t have been humanly foreseen.
As I recall the many Christmases I’ve experienced over the years of living in various Bible lands, I remember the joy of celebrating in simple ways with much laughter, many unmet expectations and several surprises.
I remember walking down my street with my housemate giving chocolates to all the neighbourhood children and telling them it’s Christmas and our feast day.
For them, it was a normal school day and they wouldn’t have known it was Christmas — nor what Christmas is — but they were happy to be given chocolates. We welcomed and encouraged them to come and visit us later that day.
Another time, my housemate and I went to the local church expecting to then visit many people in their homes. This was a tradition for any feast day and Christmas was no exception.
We assumed that in usual style, we’d land up being fed lunch somewhere too. However, this time no one was going to be home to visit and no one invited us. We later sat at our kitchen table discouraged and deflated eating peanut butter sandwiches for our Christmas lunch (although we were thankful for peanut butter as that was a relative treat in those days!)
Learning from past experiences, next Christmas, my housemate and I decided we’d invite our neighbours to visit us and share the Christmas story and its meaning, by using a clip from the Jesus film in their language.
We couldn’t invite all the neighbours at the same time, so in true western organised time-orientated fashion, we invited one group at 3pm, another at 5pm, and then more at 7pm. We prepared lots of treats and activity sheets for the kids and a few games, plus the all-important video clip.
We cleaned the house and were ready…. would anyone come?
Gradually, a few kids arrived, followed by their mothers and we served drinks and sweets according to their customs.
Then more came and people squished up on the floor mattresses and then more — oh no, we’d run out of glasses and were these people on the sweets round or the cookies round?
Suddenly, people we’d invited for later, all appeared because they saw the others and thought now was the time! In a people-orientated society, what difference was it that you came at 4 instead of 7 when everyone else was arriving?
I remember the panic rising as we tried to manage everything and the room filled to overflowing. We tried remembering who the first visitors were and so gave them fruit — a cultural sign to say the visit is soon over.
But no one decided to follow this unspoken rule and still more came and squashed in and joined the laughter and ignored the video clip playing. Then I remembered we needed to pair the shoes (that were all kicked off at the door) ready for the guests when they left. About 60 pairs later, the deed was done, until some more came…
Our nicely-controlled, streamlined three-sittings of guests had collapsed, but no one seemed to mind the chaos, nor the shoddy hospitality, nor sharing of glasses. It was a truly communal celebration that left us exhausted, laughing and promising next year to do things differently!
Another time, we hosted an alternative nativity play for various international workers.
We each had to come dressed as someone or something from the nativity story and we spontaneously acted out the story as we read Scripture.
Our group included two pregnant ladies (so one was Mary and the other Elizabeth); Caesar Augustus; a duet donkey; someone dressed as the manger and a real baby Jesus dressed as Santa! So much fun as we remembered our Saviour’s birth.
It was in this Bible land that I first learnt the gift giving game whereby everyone brings one gift and people take it in turns to choose a gift or to steal one that’s already been taken and unwrapped.
I’ve never before seen such determination, scheming and near violence to stealing chocolate. Of all the gifts available, the various supplies of quality chocolate were by far the most popular! Maybe because quality chocolate was hard to come by in those days.
I also remember sitting on the floor with a couple of special friends reading Scripture and praying together and thanking God for his gift to us. We enjoyed hours of watching a colour-changing candle and enjoying a simple feast that we’d made. No fancy razzmatazz to this celebration, but oh so meaningful.
Or another year, visiting another international family and being served Christmas pudding and mince pies, courtesy of a parcel that had been sent by their home church. The British guy was so happy, but I don’t think the non-Brits really appreciated the pud!
The memories could go on of ways I’ve enjoyed celebrating our Saviour’s birthday and while there have been twists to the script of my celebrating Christmas, there’ve been many opportunities to share God’s gift of Jesus to those around me.
So as Christmas draws near, I pray many people will discover the good news of Jesus as we all enjoy celebrating his birthday.
Kate is currently serving with SIM in the Middle East
- That Kate will continue to be a beacon for Jesus as she builds relationships and shares the good news in regions where there are few believers.
- Give thanks that Christmas is the perfect opportunity to share the gospel.
- That the Bible lands will be transformed as lives are changed by the love of Christ.