Gratitude Day 864

Luke 2:10:So, they came hurrying and found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby lying in a manger. 

I’ve had a lot of Christmas Days in my life. More than I’d like to admit.

Some wonderful celebrations filled with laughs and smiles and hugs.

And then, the year it was so terribly cold. The silo unloader broke, none of the tractors started and at noon, we sat down for breakfast. It wasn’t terribly holly and jolly that year. This was life on the farm.

The year after a significant family death is always hard. The first Christmas Hubby Rick and I were married was also the first Christmas after his son Nate had died. Whew. That was a Christmas.

Then, there are the Christmas celebrations when a person really remembers the reason for the season. For me, this was the year I lived in Kazakstan.

Part of the former Soviet Union, I lived in Kazakstan in the late 1990’s for a year. It had been several years since the break-up of the Soviet Union. But communism’s fingerprints were still very evident in daily life in Kazakstan.

In Kazak culture, Christmas was not celebrated on December 25. Orthodox Russians celebrate Christmas on January 6. But it’s not the type of celebration we have here in the U.S. Muslims do not celebrate Christmas. In Kazakstan, New Year’s Eve and Day are the big holidays of the year. This is when people go all-out.

For the non-Americans in Kazakstan, December 25 was just another ordinary, regular day. I taught English at a state-run university. It was written into our teaching contract that we got December 25 off. Otherwise, we would have taught classes like every other teacher at the university on Christmas Day.

I lived and worked with a gal named Amy. We had a two-room apartment just a few blocks from the university. These were the days of dial-up internet. Email was still relatively new. Amy had brought a laptop with her. About once a week, we hooked her computer up to the phone line in our apartment and send out and receive emails. It was a way to keep in touch with our family and very close friends.

On Christmas Eve, our friends the Ronhodves, invited us to attend an English-speaking Christmas Eve celebration with them. Jim and Grace and their three children had a Russian-made Jeep-type vehicle. We rode with them to the celebration. Jim drove the car. The person in the front passenger seat had an important job. They had to squirt the spray bottle kept in the car on the windshield throughout the ride. The bottle had a mixture of rubbing alcohol and water. Because this car had no defroster, squirting the mixture and rubbing it with a towel was the only way to keep ice defrosted off of the windshield. If Jim wanted to see where he was going, the person in the passenger seat made sure they kept a little circle clean on the windshield big enough for Jim to see the road.

We arrived at the house where people brought various appetizers and treats. Someone had a few actual Christmas cookies. For me, the real treat was the jar of American peanut butter some. I could have eaten the whole jar but refrained to just a few spoons. At some point, we gathered together, quieted down and shared something we were thankful for this Christmas. It was the simple things: a letter from the U.S., finding real coffee in the market, connecting with a local person. In a dimly lit room, we sang Silent Night. It felt almost like we were right there in the stable with Mary, Joseph and the babe.  

On Christmas Day, Amy and I invited about 20 guests to our house for Christmas dinner. We had one problem. About a month earlier, we stopped getting gas for our little stove. In fact, we couldn’t even heat water for coffee or tea. For the last month, we’d eaten cold food every day.

Grace knew we had planned this gathering at our house because we had invited their family. She offered for me to cook dinner at their apartment, about a mile away. Early Christmas morning, I hailed a taxi and loaded it up with the food and cooking utensils I had. I found some chicken at a local market. It cost a chunk of my small salary but I was determined to have some kind of real Christmas dinner for our friends.

Using Grace’s kitchen, I baked the chicken, made mashed potatoes, cooked beans and corn. I had one roll of aluminum foil that I had brought from the states and used it to carefully cover the cooked food. I wrapped the containers with the two towels that I had, trying to hold the heat in. Grace helped me load everything into a taxi to return to our apartment. The taxi driver couldn’t figure out why I was transporting all this food and my Russian skills were inadequate to explain. I tried to time my arrival when we expected our guests because I had no way to reheat the food.

Our apartment consisted of two bedrooms, a toilet room, a bathtub room and a tiny kitchen. We set out the cooked food, along with a couple salads, on the tiny kitchen table. My bedroom became the dining room. People sat on the bed and floor because this was what we had. About 20 Americans and friends from India showed up. An Indian friend brought a hotplate, our Christmas gift. We could finally heat water for tea and instant coffee!! It was THE BEST gift ever!

Our kitchen was stocked with the bare necessity of dishes. We had maybe 8 or 10 small dessert plates and an equal number of folks and spoons. Because we didn’t have enough plates for everyone, we took turns eating and using the plates and silverware. We shared glasses filled with soda and finally, hot tea! Basically, we ate in shifts. Everyone got a chance to eat the main meal and then dessert. By the end of our meal, all the food was gone. We’d scraped every little bean and bit of chicken out of the pans.

Christmas carols were new to our students. They had requested a tape with recorded songs that they could listen to. After dinner, I handed out hand-written lyrics, and put a small boom box I had brought with me in the center of the room. We joyfully sang each song, recording it on the tape player in the boom box. We had no rehearsal; we just sang. We were pretty awful, but honestly, this was the best we could do.

We ended our “concert” with Silent Night. By now, darkness had appeared outside. Lights from neighboring apartments came through one window. Local people had arrived home from their jobs and schools. And the room got terribly quiet.

We were all thinking of our own families back in the states. With a 12-hour time difference, we knew that our families were just waking up to begin their Christmas celebrations. We anticipated the traditions and meals and gatherings that would take place that day. Of course, we all felt a little remorse for missing those near and dear to us. Would we be missed at home?

Weeks earlier, I had recorded a short Christmas message on a tape and sent it to my family for them to listen to on Christmas Day. I talked about life in Kazakstan, teaching at the university, and how I would miss them on Christmas Day. I didn’t expect them to fully understand why I had chosen to live away for a year but I hoped they would celebrate being together on the day of Jesus’ birth.

Now, I was gathered with my new friends, sharing a lukewarm meal on plates that rotated through the room. We each shared a little Christmas tradition that we felt captured what Christmas meant for us individually. A favorite food. Going to church together. Lighting the Advent wreath.

Compared to the first Christmas in a stable, our celebration in my bedroom-turned-dining­-room still felt very luxurious. We appreciated how God had brought together complete strangers from various parts of the world so we could celebrate Savior’s birth. While sitting on the floor in a circle around the room, we knew that we had more resources than most of the residents in the city where we lived. Our simplified lives had drawn us closer to the One whose son’s birth we celebrated that very day. We felt blessed and fortunate. This was not lost on us.

This weekend, we’ll gather with family and friends, eat tons of food and get buried in wrapping paper. We will miss the person who should be gathered at the table with us and long for someone who wasn’t able to be present at our celebration. We might get upset because something was said that should not have been said. Our kids and/or grandkids will think they didn’t get exactly what they wanted and bemoan this. We may be distracted because something didn’t turn out quite right or someone was late.

Before the day turns completely to darkness and we wonder where the day went, I pray that we will sit by the tree and remember that the Light of the World has arrived. May we light the Advent wreath and recall the hope, peace, joy and love that we experience every day, even when life isn’t perfect. I hope we call that person who lives far away and truly wish them a Merry Christmas. May we share a special tradition or memory with a younger person in our family and pray they remember the traditions and special moments of the current day Christmas gathering.

And then, may we curl up in bed and know that even if things were perfect, they were good enough. Jesus came into an imperfect world, ready to share his love, joy, peace and hope. It was enough for him. I pray it is enough for us.

Merry Christmas.

For Christmas memories that draw me back to the meaning of Christ’s birth, I am grateful. 

Most Holy God – slow me down today so I can bask in the truth that Jesus came into this world in the most unexpected of ways just for ME. May I let this be the focus on what I celebrate the next few days moreso than the things the world tries to say are more important. May I know the Light of the World as part of my special Christmas memories. Amen. 

Blessings –


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