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A Christmas Refuge in Asia

Posted on Jan 5, 2010

“What is Christmas like in C-n-a?” The best answer, really, is “a lot like Valentine’s Day.” And while this might seem like an odd answer, I shall attempt to make it clear. Both the holidays are “borrowed” from other countries, with no long history here. Neither, therefore, is associated with family or tradition, and neither is recognized as an official holiday. So without any time off and without any traditions, they have become days for co-workers and friends, particularly boy- and girl-friends, to go out for sumptuous meals and give one another very small gifts. Restaurants around town plan special Christmas menus, and if you’ve ever fancied singing carols round the fire over a spicy, calf-brain hot pot, this is the place for you. Frightening Santa heads leer at you from every door, paper maché Saint Nicks hang above as you shop and six-foot dancing Kris Kringles gyrate nauseatingly to obnoxious songs only distantly related to Christmas.

My own apartment complex is an excellent example of the preferred local style of Christmas decoration. Paper Santa heads, three times life-size, are pasted on every doorway. Although the intended effect is jollity, these Santas have sort of a leering look that makes you glance back nervously over your shoulder. All the bushes and trees are swathed in lights: some white, some colored and some all blue. Some are twisted around trees, and some merely extend in a straight, taut line from the tree top straight to the plug in the ground. Others are thrown on top of bushes at random, sometimes in clumps and sometimes in sinuous twists. When turned on they show a marvelous independence, each one blinking at a different rate and in a different style from its neighbor, and some not at all. The overall effect is as if a few bitter, unemployed elves came down from the North Pole to wreak revenge upon the merry.

Several Christmas trees will usually be placed at random throughout the complex. Usually three feet or shorter (one poor specimen lost it’s top somewhere), they have lights thrown around them at random, sometimes with a vague suggestion of being wound around, and sometimes simply thrown in a heap on one side. The garland, which can be red, green, blue, silver, purple, pink, or orange, and often a combo of all, is often clumped in one area, or pulled straight in one line from the top to the bottom of the tree. It is not uncommon to see all the decorations hanging on just one side of the tree, and not necessarily the side most seen. One little shop in my complex last year had somehow acquired a blue Christmas ball that was the size of a soccer ball. It was made of styrofoam or something like it, and when they placed it on the tree, it pulled down the poor, tiny thing. So, to balance it, they put all the remaining balls and other ornaments on the opposite side of the tree, with nothing in the middle.

In the midst of this artistic chaos, I like to think of my apartment as a refuge for the deco-weary. And this somewhat accounts for its popularity as a Christmas destination. There are really three major uses for my home at this festive time of year. The first is for missionaries. A number of them enjoy having a traditionally decorated place to which they can come (and bring their children), to rest for a few hours from the maelstrom without. Part of the draw, in fact, is being able to take their children to a place where they can “see” Christmas much as their parents remember it from their own childhood. It’s also a chance to sing carols and other hymns in a group, in their own language, which for many of us is a rare and eagerly anticipated event. So our home is, we trust, a favorite gathering place for those who labor here, at that time of year most suited for waxing nostalgic about tradition.

The second group that often appear within the Christmas Palace (as my home is often denominated during the winter months), are those of our local Christian friends who hope to reach out to their friends, family and co-workers. The believers here often have a difficult life, being made to feel that they are utterly alone. Their coworkers despise them for being so weak as to fall for the “opiate of the masses,” while their families harangue them for departing from tradition or following a foreigner’s religion. But at Christmas, people who would normally not listen to anything about the Bible or Jesus Christ are suddenly willing to at least sit and listen, provided such discussions are held within the context of explaining the origins and traditions of Christmas. They are especially willing to do so if they can go to a foreigner’s home and see some of the traditions associated with the holiday. They are often stunned when they arrive at my home, to find that Santa does not play the slightest part in the decorations, and that there are plenty of places where Christmas is celebrated without him. (Of course, to be fair, they are also usually stunned to find that pink is not a traditional Christmas color, but that’s another story.) My home then, often plays host to such people. Sometimes I invite them and sometimes local Christians bring along those they hope to reach with the gospel. I often invite other local Christians to join us. This is to counter the common idea that Christianity is for foreigners only. Seeing a number of local Christians, hearing them witness of grace of the Lord, is often a stunning experience for a native person. Many believers here consider Christmas their most important witnessing opportunity of the year, and a number of people have come to know the Lord they were first introduced to as part of a strange and foreign custom.

The final group involved in our Christmas holidays are single believers of all nationalities. On Christmas Day, anyone without believing family is welcome here. In the morning, our home is usually filled with foreigners only. This is because Christmas is not recognized as a holiday, and no native person would have this day off. Most working contracts for foreigners, however, specify one day off for Christmas. Normally, we serve brunch to anywhere from three to ten guests and then gather around the tree, where we sing, pray together, read a variety of Christmas sermons by various authors (usually long passed away) and sometimes exchange gifts. The main meal comes around four, and we are joined by a number of local friends who want to celebrate, but have no one with whom they can unless they want to go to a big meal and watch their coworkers get drunk. There is a lot of eating, more singing, chocolate, plenty of laughter, and when it is time to go home in the evening it’s hard to imagine where all the day could have gone.

So for us, Christmas is an essential time for outreach, as well as for fellowship. We all appreciate your prayers each year as this time rolls around again: prayers for us as we prepare, prayers for those who visit with us and open hearts for them. – Miriam

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