When my firstborn daughter was one, we moved approximately 8,000 lonely miles from all our friends and family. After 32 hours of travel, we arrived to our new country, on her first birthday (we did celebrate that occasion with loved ones before we left). Her birthday falls on Halloween, so we left our home country and kin at the irrefutable start of the USA holiday season (not like the highly debatable Christmas music in August).
Expatriates usually have a handful of stories in their back pockets about unusual holidays, holiday mishaps and tribulations. There are the funny ones. The year everyone got food poisoning because the turkey was “kept warm” with a heating blanket. That time the sweet tea was sloshed across town in the back of a jerky taxi. The mental gymnastics to create “home-style” recipes with scant selections from import stores (walnut pie anyone?).
There are also the ones that aren’t so funny. The one where a lonely, depressed roommate stays in their pajamas. The first holiday since the passing of a beloved grandparent, and you feel a million miles away from grieving family. The ones your kids run fevers and you can’t attend the dinner with fellow expat neighbors. The first time you made an old family recipe and it tastes like love and togetherness, while leaving an insatiable hunger for ‘home’.
Like the rest of 2020, ‘Holidays’ this Year Are Bound to be a little Strange
Maybe your parent or grandparent is quarantined in an elder care facility. Maybe you or your dearest loved ones are immunocompromised, or have different views on social distancing and you have to be apart. Maybe your college-aged-child never left home as planned and the dynamics have gotten tense amid disappointment. Many of us have lost loved ones, lost income, lost touch with friends, lost dreams and while the holiday itself may be ‘normal,’ you’re feeling strange in its midst. Grief and loss are like unwanted house-guests with no departure date in view.
Can we start with a little moment to pause and reflect? This is (still) not normal. I hope one thing we have all learned in this midst of this unprecedented (I know we’re all tired of that word) year is to be gentle with ourselves. We all hoped the holidays could be a time to look backwards at the strangeness of the year and begin reminiscing, healing, and moving on. Instead, most of us are still very much living through it – still in some level of crisis mode.
As someone who’s lived her fair share of strange holidays – even if for no other reason than me and 8 other expats were the only ones celebrating — let me start with a gentle, though perhaps controversial, statement.
Sometimes, it is alright is the holiday is just another day.
Yes, for most of us, that would be a disappointment. But perhaps, it is what it is, as they say. If it is what it is, then what actually is it? Are these days to reenact our own idyllic version of It’s a Wonderful Life or White Christmas? Then what do we do if the days feel more like Stranger Things or Home Alone (but without the feel-good ending)?
Are “The Holidays” An Idol?
Sometimes all of our idyllic or distorted expectations can warp holidays into a bit of a pharisaical pursuit. Remember the way the Pharisees always wanted to stone Jesus for, like, caring for hurting, needy people on the Sabbath? That violated their extrabiblical practices for what defined “work” on that special day. Jesus’ response was that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). “The holidays” can become a bit of an idol for us — we strive to make them into something we’ve decided they should be (serving the ideal) instead of letting these days and seasons serve us. Despite what we’ve all come to expect, these holidays do not have to deliver magic for us and our loved ones. They can simply instruct us – provide an opportunity for us to join in – body, mind, and soul – in the spiritual practices of celebration and gratitude, or of longing and waiting, fasting and feasting.
Christian holidays give us a far better story to reenact than Hollywood or Hallmark. Advent invites us to a holy anticipation, a longing for God’s presence to manifest itself in a new way. We enter the minor chords of ancient Israel’s yearning for God’s Rescuer and make things better. And we get quiet enough to hear the minor chords of our own yearning for Jesus to return and make all things new. Thanksgiving, though not on the ancient church’s calendar, gives Christians an opportunity to practice Biblical feasting and corporate praise and gratitude. Or, simply extended time to focus our attention on the God from whom all blessings flow – whether it involves turkey and large gatherings or not.
Stranger, and also Sweet
There is nothing wrong with traditions and decorations – the sights, smells, people and practices that become synonymous with these celebrations in our families. On the one hand, living in a culture that stripped some of these lovely trappings away helped me to think more deeply about what these physical reminders and practices actually signify and enter into their deeper meanings. Living in a dark, smoggy winter with no festive décor around town made the lights twinkling in my house extra grateful for the light coming into the dark world (John 1).
On the other hand, stripping these seasons from some of the commercialized or traditional aspects can require a more thoughtful participation. You can’t “go home for the holidays” — what if you could reimagine and re-create a safe haven for you (and some other pilgrim souls?), while holding space for hunger for our true home, Heaven? You’ve never felt more isolated and lonely – what if this year you spend the day communing with Jesus, who tasted more than his fair share of that pain and alienation? Maybe there’s no money for the ‘trappings’ – whether that be the feast or the travel or the gifts – can you enter into the celebration with a joyful heart over a microwave dinner? The psalmist says, “Better is the little that the righteous has than the abundance of many wicked” (Psalm 37:16).
Strangers in a Strange Place
Some of my favorite verses (you might call them my “life verses”) come from Psalm 84,
“What joy for those whose strength comes from the LORD,
who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
It will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
And each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.” (NLT)
This year is a good reminder that this life is a pilgrimage. These strange seasons and experiences are par for the course on our journey to our true home. Still, God blesses us on our way – turning weeping into refreshment and taking us from strength to strength.
It is alright to grieve the strangeness. In fact, leaning into the grief of loneliness could be the best way to be fully alive during this holiday season. We don’t need to strive to create a magical experience, escaping the losses and disappointments of this world, in order to celebrate well. We can be present in the already and the not yet – praising God for the grace that is present in the breath in our lungs while grieving what’s hard, and longing for the not yet – the feast Jesus will host in our new home, when all these tears and losses and loneliness will not be worth comparing to the glory that is to come (see Romans 8:18).