When we moved to Turkey 9 years ago, we came with 17 suitcases, much to my husband’s chagrin. Travelling with so much luggage forced him into the role of superman, and we often joke about that trip saying that if he’d wanted a lower maintenance woman, he should have married someone else. I made quite a sight on the curb at the Izmir airport trying to keep the mountain of suitcases from toppling over while attempting to keep an active 4 year old boy and a two year old girl under control. We had to rent a little truck to drive our luggage across town to the place we were staying. Last week I took one of those suitcases down from its place on top of the wardrobe and unpacked its contents like I do every December.
My Christmas suitcase holds many treasures: a collection of nativity scenes; an advent wreath, and our tree ornaments, including those my mother has given me every year since I was a child. One of my favorites is a simple handmade angel made out of paper and felt that a dear family friend made for me when I was in elementary school. The angel’s pink felt face, sequin eyes, and bedraggled white yarn hair look dated now, but I love it because it reminds me of childhood Christmases.
Last Thursday while my husband did the dinner dishes, the kids and I got out our tree. To be honest, fluffing the branches, untangling the lights and stringing them on the tree with two children was stressful after a long day. I felt tired and irritable, but I did my best to put on a cheerful face. I made hot chocolate, turned on Christmas carols, and pretty soon I was enjoying watching the kids exclaim over each ornament as they put it on the tree. I remembered how my mother used to make cookies and set out party snacks for a family celebration while we decorated the tree. Now I wonder how on earth she did it; hot chocolate was all I could manage to crank out.
After the kids went to bed, I sat quietly looking at my Christmas treasures by the twinkling light of the tree. I stroked the red, green and white calico table top quilt that my grandmother pieced and my mother quilted years ago. I smiled at the wooden stable and clay figure nativity scene from El Salvador, and a miniature nativity set we bought on our honeymoon. How glad I am that I brought the blue Christmas suitcase with us 9 years ago.
My treasures connect me with my past even though today I live in a Muslim country where Christmas is not celebrated. December 25th is like any other work day; it goes by completely unnoticed. But as much as I miss my family, my church and the festive atmosphere at home during the holidays, I don’t wish to be back there. My favorite Christmastimes have been right here in Turkey. There is something powerful about celebrating Christ’s coming among people who do not recognize it. Away from the materialistic consumerism that threatens to overshadow the true meaning of Christmas in America, my family and I are freer to celebrate the birth of Christ. Being far from home makes establishing traditions with my own family important. My favorite part of December is reading scripture and praying with the kids every evening by the light of our advent wreath.
Several years I opened my home to celebrate with local believers whose families do not share their new found faith. I’ve wondered how to make Christmas more culturally relevant for Turks, who have no reason to connect a Christmas tree with Christ’s birth. I do not have any good answers, but one of my favorite Christmas memories is a dinner we had in our home for 20 people. I decided the least I could do was serve Turkish food, and I asked everyone else to please bring local style food. I slaved all day to make karniyarik (stuffed baked eggplant), but my exhaustion faded as I watched our brothers and sisters faces shining during the scripture readings and Christmas hymns we shared together after our meal.
This year on December 25th, we will host a party in our home for friends of another faith. Our goal is to share our celebration with them and explain Christ’s coming in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. We will play games, eat together, sing some Christmas songs, read the Christmas story from Luke, and my 13 year old son will share about what Jesus’ birth means to him. Truthfully, I’m a bit nervous about the party. When you give Turks an invitation they say, “I’ll do my best to come,” so you never know if they’re really coming until the event occurs. I sweat bullets before every single event because I’m always panicked that no one will show up. However, this week I’ve decided to relax, enjoy the Holiday with my family, and rejoice in whatever God does through our party. What better way to celebrate Christ’s birth than sharing his coming with others who do not know him? This party is my gift to the Baby King.