In Nigeria I have been stripped of (almost) all that I equate - mentally, emotionally, physically, sensorially - with Christmas.
No Christmas trees.
No pine tree scent in my house.
No lights on houses.
No Christmas cookies.
No candy canes.
No endless stream of holiday parties.
No Christmas cards in the mail.
Worst of all, no one has a clue about the amazingness of the movie A Christmas Story. And people are slightly concerned that I'm a bit racist when I tell them I have an annual tradition of watching a movie called White Christmas.
Did I mention that it's 95 degrees every. single. day? (To all my Southern friends, sorry, I know that feels perfectly reasonable to you, but humor me).
It's astounding how much of what I love about Christmas is entirely cultural and secular. And entirely not about Jesus. Sure, amongst the Christian world in America as each Christmas rolls around, there are laments about how commercial Christmas has become and how the true "reason for the season" has been lost. How we need to boycott buying excessive amounts of gifts and get back to basics. Or something like this, which was quoted in a recent blog post I read...
"Every year the world — and the church — experiences Christmas, that curious amalgam of paganism, commercialism, and Christianity which Western civilization has invented to tide it over the darkest days of the winter. Christmas is a lost opportunity, a time when the world invites the Church to speak and she blushes, smiles, and mutters a few banalities with which the world is already perfectly familiar from its own stock of clichés and nursery rhymes." -Donald Macleod
And I read those blogs and articles and think, "Yea, right on! I'm so with you! This year it's all about Jesus!" I'm convicted of my need to focus more on Jesus, am well intentioned, and maybe even start out the month strong. But the fact of the matter is that it's next to impossible to actually meditate and focus on Jesus amidst the culture, commercialism, candy, and cookies. It's terribly difficult not to conflate it all. I say I'm joyful because it's another year to celebrate Jesus' birth (and I certainly am at some level), but am I really just excited that I'm going to get a bunch of sweet gifts, watch great movies, and eat tons of amazing food every single day for a month? Am I most excited about how the Advent calendar reminds me each day that Christmas is ever nearer, or the tasty chocolates I get to eat as I open a new 'door' on the calendar each day? How can I/we/you even begin to separate these things in our culture?
I don't have good answers to those questions, because I don't actually think I've done a great job of navigating it. But I do know that it was so much easier this year. Purely based on my choice to spend Christmas in Nigeria (in Ife specifically, I'm guessing it might have been a slightly different story in Lagos or Abuja), I was forced to confront how much I conflate and confuse culture with Christmas. I was forced to answer the question of whether my joy is rooted in celebrating Jesus' birth or in receiving gifts and eating food. And I was humbled by my 'answer.' I realized that I felt disappointed or angry that I didn't get to experience or eat or enjoy certain things this year. I saw my self-pity flare up as I listened to Christmas carols that talked about snow or looked at friends' photos of their decorated Christmas trees on facebook. I would feel myself looking at what was missing this Christmas instead of seeing that God had provided a huge opportunity to be truly filled with and satisfied in him and his Son. I had a heart of grumbling instead of a heart of gratitude.
But thanks be to God that he didn't leave me in this place! I praise him for showing me early in the month how much I have wound up culture with Christmas and for revealing my heart that seeks "joy" in the temporal rather than the eternal. I'm so thankful that he gave me eyes to see this and a receptive heart to learn and grow through it. I asked friends for prayer and asked God to change my heart, to make me prone to gratitude rather than grumbling, to take the extra time and space - unimpeded and undistracted - to focus on the true reason for the season. And you know what? He did it. God is so faithful and steadfast and longs for us to know more of him, and he honors our prayers to help us do so.
So I come back to where I started- I am struck by how unique this December has been in many ways. This December has been a rich month of feasting on Jesus, receiving gifts from him, and admiring the Light of the world. It has been a lovely celebration of his first Advent and a deeper longing for his second Advent. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity. In a way feel like I "had it easy," to not have had to fight through all the muck and mire of culture that has gotten so intertwined in my mind and heart with Christmas. Maybe others have been more successful at this in America than I have (and I welcome you to share your stories in the comments!), and I pray that I will be able to do so in years to come.
I still think I prefer a white Christmas to a warm one, but I hope to maintain a focused and joyful meditation on Jesus, no matter the culture or climate in which I find myself.