Did you ever have to learn about another culture’s traditions in school? You might have a vague memory of elementary school research projects that included reading about the history of Boxing Day or learning how Dutch children leave out wooden shoes for Christmas instead of stockings. But celebrating the holidays in another culture and country is a completely different experience than just learning about them!
In our first term overseas in Tanzania, my family and I quickly learned that Christmas is actually the most sweaty time of the year. My children and I sang, “Dashing through the snow,” while sweating through our shirts as we colored each shade of all our green (and blue) crayons to nubs. Our “tree” that year was paper!
Even though our holidays overseas may have been wrapped differently, they helped us build relationships and feel more firmly settled in the countries where we served.
Here are some different ways we and some of our closest missionary friends have celebrated in different countries in past years.
Over Different Time Spans
In America, we wish people “Happy New Year!” on January 1, or maybe a day or two after. In many African countries, those New Year’s greetings extend well into March or even May because the first time you see a friend in the new year, you offer New Year’s blessings.
Many missionaries live in areas where mail is unreliable or unavailable, but shipments arrive a few times a year. When the shipment with Christmas presents from my kids’ grandparents arrived in March instead of December, the whole family celebrated Christmas again — complete with reading the Christmas story and singing Christmas carols!
Each year, we’d get Christmas cards months after Christmas, sometimes even into August! We loved how Christmas just kept going.
With Different Foods and Unique Gifts
One thing many people associate with the holidays is food! You’re probably used to eating turkey or ham on Thanksgiving. Most likely you buy or bake pies and Christmas cookies every year. But not every country or culture celebrates holidays with these foods!
While serving in Papua New Guinea, our friends Michael and Bev invited all the single people over to their home for Christmas Eve. The people would spend the night then eat a special Christmas dinner of roasted leg of lamb from New Zealand together.
One generous friend in Cameroon gave us a live chicken as a Christmas gift a few days early so we could eat it on Christmas. She laughed as everyone in our family initially thought it was supposed to be a pet.
We carried our family’s gift swapping tradition with us to Cameroon. Over 30 of our missionary colleagues gathered at our house for an evening of fellowship and laughter. The most coveted gifts of the swap were different from what they would have been in America, though: a coupon for a dozen home-baked cookies of choice once a month for a year, a jar of American peanut butter, a brand-new box of crayons and a full-day babysitting coupon.
When Michael and Bev served in Nigeria, they invited local friends who hadn’t experienced an American Thanksgiving to join them for dinner. One of the women helped prep and make pies the day before. The group spent Thanksgiving Day together playing games, sharing what they were thankful for and eating a traditional Thanksgiving meal — which included chicken rather than turkey since turkey was hard to get and very expensive.
Priorities for missionaries and their families change after they’ve been overseas for a few years. I’ll never forget when my then 7-year-old asked for potato chips for his Christmas gift!
God taught me so much about his heart of giving that first year in Tanzania. We learned that the family we purchased milk from also pastored a small church, but only the pastor had a Bible. By God’s grace, SIL (Wycliffe’s primary strategic partner) had already translated the Bible and other resources into their language! We were honored to give each family a complete Bible and a children’s story Bible. Just imagining them reading the Christmas story in their language for the first time fueled our passion to help others access God’s Word in their language.
With Different Customs
Even in the U.S., you’ve probably noticed that different families celebrate the holidays with different customs. Some families open presents on Christmas Eve, while others wait until the next morning. Maybe your family or group of friends has a specific tradition that you do every year to mark the holidays. Here are a few overseas traditions we’ve enjoyed:
Each year in Tanzania, a church gathers kilos of rice and beans, salt, jugs of oil, bars of soaps and other staple supplies. They take one of each item, along with the Gospel of John, and bundle the items together in a yard-long piece of colorful fabric. Then they deliver the gifts to families in nearby neighborhoods on Christmas Day. We continued this tradition when we moved to Cameroon.
A Halloween celebration would have been very inappropriate in the country where we served, so we held a “Harvest Hoo-Rah”! We prepared a paper bag for each attendee and all our guests brought cards and notes with words of encouragement, thankfulness and treats specifically for each person. After our shared meal, each person shared what they most thanked God for in the previous year.
In Guatemala, Josiah’s family shared the traditional Christmas Eve meal of tamales wrapped in banana leaves with other missionaries. Then they stayed up until midnight to watch the fireworks.
Although most missionaries miss family and friends from their passport countries during the holidays, celebrating with colleagues and those they’ve been called to serve bonds us together with memories that will last a lifetime.
But the Most Important Things Remain
Your missionary might celebrate the holidays differently than you — without turkey and ham, with new people from different parts of the world around their tables, on a different day with homemade decorations — but the heart of the holidays remain.
They’re celebrating God’s goodness and faithfulness at Thanksgiving, his grace and his miraculous gift of Jesus Christ at Christmas and his mercies that are new every morning at the start of the new year.