Despite our religious apathy, many of us have grown up in a culture of “holy” days that have come to mean something far different from that which was originally meant or that contemporary believers may wish. Regardless, these holidays have come to mark significant times of the year, and for me, Christmas will always be a special time. Not all Christmases have been great, and some have been flat out disappointing, but my first Christmas abroad was sure to be different. In all honesty, I was a bit apprehensive.
I first cast off from the US almost two years ago with the intention of spending a full year abroad (I had even contemplated spending Christmas in North Korea!). However, massive change of heart and change of life direction sent me rushing back home to arrive just in time for Christmas for the second year in a row. This time, however, I will do no such mad dash around the globe.
No, this year, Christmas has come and mostly passed as I mill about comfortably at Joel’s home in Germany. The relatively warm weather and persistent gray gloom have suppressed the Christmas feeling, and the ubiquitous Christmas markets in the towns I’ve traveled through in Scandinavia and in a couple cities here in Germany have bespoken only the gaudy consumerist veneer I hate about Christmas. Even last night, on Christmas Eve, I spent most of the evening alone while my host family visited the grandparents. An experimental meal of avocado and jalapeño poppers with failed thumbprint cookies was hardly the Christmas Eve fare I’ve grown accustomed to (although it was delicious).
Things all started to come together this morning. A cute little tree had been set up when I returned from my run, and Joel’s mom, Michaela, was in full frenzy in the kitchen. The smell of roasting sweets and sauteeing delectables filled the house as the boys strung one strand of white lights around the tree. The family proceeded to decorate the Charlie-Brown-esque evergreen with simple orbs and ribbons as I watched unobtrusively from the corner.
Feeling the need to contribute, I began to prepare a batch of cookies by darting into the kitchen to grab tools and ingredients each time Michaela stepped out. When Joel’s dad returned with his 91-year-old mother, I was just finishing up the dough, and the table had been prepared with a gorgeous ad hoc centerpiece of fallen bark, boughs, and leftover ornaments. The bubbly grandmother, who shuffled about a full head shorter than anyone else, prattled incessantly to the whole family, even me, who understood only a few words of her rough but joyful German.
Dinner was simple but delicious, and Michaela even accommodated Joel and me (I have been conforming to his pescatarian/vegan diet) by preparing two plates of salmon separate from the pork roast. As we finished up the main course, I tossed the prepped cookies in the oven for a few minutes, and the hearty oatmeal cookies were well-received when the attempt at ice cream didn’t quite pan out.
Just as I might have done on a typical Christmas Eve, we then gathered in the living room to open gifts. I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one who obsessively unwraps gifts without tearing the paper (the whole family did so). I was also pleased to see the unashamed gifting of alcohol (grandmother got each member of the family a bottle).
But most of all, I was stunned when two of the presents were delivered to me. Having spent much of the evening quietly observing from the corner, I felt dragged warmly into the scene when Michaela handed me a small black and silver package with a bow. It was a small journal and pen, perfectly timed as I’m filling the final pages of the one I brought to Korea. As I hooked the pen over the soft moleskin cover just as I had done for so many months on my previous travels, I couldn’t stop smiling.
This family has already been unbelievably generous in hosting me in their home for nearly a week now, and I feel I can hardly repay their hospitality. Yet, they even went the extra step to bring me into their family tradition with this small gesture. Though I’m not with my family this Christmas, I have found a family, and I am forever grateful for their kindness.
Whether you’ve gotten together to worship or just to share time and food with family and friends, I hope your time is joyful, and I wish you the best on this Christmas Day.
Merry Christmas, everyone.