Last Christmas, the magical spark never came. I was bothered by all the commercialism that plagues our city months in advance. Somewhere between the flashy ads in magazines and feeling I didn’t have much to offer Jesus due to the limitations of our circumstances, I lost my enthusiasm. I wasn’t looking forward to decorating the tree, neither did I want the guilt and stress that would come from cramming and rushing to “make things meaningful.”
It was Christmas morning, and my wife and I were enjoying a break at the end of what had been a hectic December. The view from our hotel balcony—a pristine lake surrounded by snowcapped mountains—was idyllic, but as an avid bird watcher, it’s what was happening above that caught my interest.
The Christmas season—undoubtedly my favorite season of the year—holds many unforgettable memories. It was on a snowy December day when I was six years old that our family flew home to the U.S. from the Philippines, where we had been missionaries for the previous several years. This was the first time I met my grandparents and the first time I experienced snow. When I was 15, I spent the Christmas season playing percussion in a band that had come to Mexico from Washington D.C. to hold benefit concerts. I had a blast.
Christmas 1984 was our family’s third Christmas away from Europe, and the remote village in eastern India where we had moved to help as volunteers had become a second home. After some initial difficulty in adjusting to such a different climate and culture, we soon came to appreciate the wonderful people we lived around and to embrace the new sights, sounds, tastes, and fragrances. I began to especially look forward to shopping at our local market, which seemed to have a year-round selection of fabulous juicy fruits—mangos, bananas, lichees, papayas, jackfruits, limes, and others.
I was born in 1955, only ten years after World War II, when wartime hardships were still fresh in people’s minds. Grandfather used to tell us children of the extreme hunger and exhaustion of those days, and the struggle of staying alive during the long freezing winter months.
Our town was in the heart of Germany’s industrial center, and everything was covered with a seemingly permanent layer of gray-brown dust from the steel mills. In springtime, the grass and green shoots quickly turned brown, and so did the fresh snow in winter, making its white coat look worn after only a day.
There was once a man who didn’t believe in God, and he didn’t hesitate to let others know how he felt about religion and religious holidays, like Christmas. His wife, however, did believe, and she raised their children to also have faith in God and Jesus, despite her husband’s disparaging comments.
One snowy Christmas Eve, his wife was taking their children to a Christmas Eve church service in the farm community in which they lived. She asked him to come, but he refused.
We all know the story of Jesus’ birth. We’ve also seen it depicted on Christmas cards and in Nativity scenes—Mary in her flowing gown, the tidy surroundings, the Christ Child wrapped in spotless white or baby blue swaddling clothes. But what was the first Christmas really like? I’ve often wondered about that. Now I think I know.
It was almost Christmas 2004, and a few of us had made the long trip from Kampala, Uganda, to a remote mountainous region in the north. We were taking medicine, school materials, and radios to an agrarian and goat-herding people known as the Ik. It was the furthest from modern civilization that I had ever been.
“I knew you would come!” said a frail grandmother as she gripped my hand tightly.
It was Christmastime, and my children and I had been visiting retirement homes and orphanages, as we had done each of the last few years. At orphanages we would do our best to entertain the orphans by organizing games and performing, and we would also distribute presents that our sponsors had provided. We also passed out small gifts and performed at the retirement homes, but usually my children’s presence was enough to delight the elderly residents. “What adorable children!” was a chorus that I heard often.