I was thinking about my mom on her birthday, and realized that there was something very special about my childhood—the times we spent together. More specifically, I was thinking about the Christmases when I was small. The thing that made each memory special wasn’t the number or value of the gifts we received or the Christmas parties we attended. Rather, it was the simple things.
I grew up in Communist Romania, where there was a state ban on religion, so “finding Christmas” wasn’t easy.
“Don’t use the word ‘Christmas’ at school or with people you don’t know,” I remember being told when I turned school age. We used the word at home because some members of my extended family were old enough to have grown up before the ban and still secretly kept the holiday. With everyone else, the tree was to be called “the New Year tree.” Christmas was “the winter holiday.” If we children received gifts, there was no mention of Christmas attached.
Over the years, Christmas has taken on different meanings for me. When I was a young child, it meant a special family holiday, the Christmas story at Sunday school, walking home in the snow, a brown paper bag with a big Jaffa orange, whole walnuts to crack, and a new book to read.
It was my first Christmas in Taipei, Taiwan, when I heard the Christmas classic “Silent Night” sung in Chinese for the first time. It made a special impression, and I remember thinking that I had to learn the words. The first line was fairly easy—after all, half of it is the song title—but beyond that it got harder.
It was wintertime and I had just arrived in the state of Goa, the former Portuguese colony on the southwest coast of India. I was a long way from my home country of Brazil, but right away I made friends with a young mixed-faith couple—he was Catholic and she was Hindu—whose marriage had been rejected by both their families. They had opened a small restaurant right on one of the beaches popular with backpack tourists, where they let us sleep at night.
When my children were young, we read about an old tradition that existed in various parts of Europe since the Middle Ages. Groups of children and young people would go house to house singing Christmas carols and sometimes collecting donations for charitable purposes.
At the heart of Christmas is the Child of Bethlehem, who was born into this often cold, hostile world to warm us with His heavenly Father’s love. It was a child who began the first Christmas celebration, and it is children who keep it alive in their own special ways.
We children had always wanted a real Christmas tree—a tall, lavishly decorated one, like other families had. It would have “singing” lights, silver tinsel, and glass ornaments dressing its snow-topped branches. And of course, the space beneath it would be overflowing with presents.