Friday, December 9, 2011

What's That Tree in Your Living Room?

“I like your New Year’s tree,” says my neighbor as we sit drinking coffee in my living room.  “You have it up so early, too.”

“Um, thanks,” I say, “We actually put up the tree to celebrate Christmas.”

“Christmas!” she responds, “We celebrate it too on December 31st.”

I go on to tell my neighbor that we celebrate the birth of our Savior on December 25th, and that it’s a different celebration than New Year’s Eve. I try to explain in a few words what it means to me. I also feel pretty foolish because there’s not a tangible connection between Christ’s birth and the green tree with the lights and decorations I have in my living room.  It really does look more like a New Year’s Tree. My neighbor is right!

Celebrating Christmas Can Be Tricky

Celebrating Christmas in a country where Christ is unknown can be tricky.  Westernization is alive and well in Turkey, so we see New Year’s trees, lights, Santa Clauses and snowmen in the stores.  Selling trees and decorations means revenue for the retail business, and many Turks have adopted the custom of decorating a tree.  This is to celebrate December 31st.  The celebration of Christ’s birth on the 25th is completely unknown.

I’m not sure what the celebration of Christ’s birth should look like here.  Honestly, we are caught in between our customs from home and the culture of country we live in.  My Turkish sister good naturedly tells me she hates Christmas trees and feels like they’re an imposition of Western culture, yet my own children would be heart-broken if we didn’t put up a tree, so we continue to do it.  I have a much loved collection of nativity sets that serve as tangible reminders to my family that Christmas is about the birth of Christ, but I know that locals traditionally view Christians as idolaters.  Do those manger scenes look like little idols?  I hope not. Despite my doubts, I put them out anyway and simply try to explain what they are to guests.

What should Christmas look like?

As foreigners, we are passing on our traditions and customs to local believers, but I’m honestly not sure what we should be passing on.  Surely decorated trees and manger scenes send messages of Western religion. I’ve wondered if we should celebrate Christmas at all in the Middle East since Jesus probably wasn’t born in December. At the same time, celebration is an important part of human tradition, and the rest of the Christian world celebrates Christ’s coming in December. I believe Middle Eastern believers need opportunities to celebrate.  Their old festivals are no longer relevant for them.

Local churches have Christmas celebrations and take advantage of the opportunity to prepare special programs for guests and to share the message. Local believers take part in these church celebrations, but there is no culture of family celebration that I know of.

One of my dreams is to write a pamphlet for Turkish women about how they can celebrate Christmas meaningfully with their families.  What Christmas symbols would be relevant for Turks? Stars? Lights? Angels? Candles? Surely eating together, reading the Christmas story, and singing songs are good ways to celebrate in any culture. If you live in the Middle East, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

What about you? If you live in another part of the world, how is Christmas celebrated? How do you seek to celebrate Christ’s birth in a way that is culturally and spiritually meaningful?



Creatively Content said...

Olive, You were able to describe many of my thoughts and concerns throughout the years here with Christmas. It has been one of my bigger frustrations trying to explain the difference between new years Eve and Christmas. I remember when we first came 7 years ago how few decorations and trees there were, now it is everywhere in the west part of Turkey. This year however we are going to make our Christmas cookies and make our rounds with a scripture attached to share. ~ Believes celebrating Christmas here is a cultural challenge, I agree. Your pamphlet sounds like a great idea. OK I have wrote a book. ;) MERRY CHRISTMAS to your family ~ Our Savior is Born.

KarenKTeachCamb said...

I hear you Olive Tree! Celebrating Christmas in countries where it really isn't part of their cultural heritage is challenging. This will be my fifth Christmas in Cambodia, and each year I see more and more commercialisation of Christmas creeping in. When I first arrived it was almost impossible to get anything Christmassy. Now I can buy trees, tinsel, decorations, santa outfits, etc. in several of the big stores. Last weekend a number of the Christian based NGOs got together and held a Christmas Fair, which was interesting and fun. For me personally, Christmas is about celebrating Christ's birth and all that followed as a result of His birth. While I've got a heap of decorations, all I've got out this year is my nativity set, a reminder of the reason for the season. Teaching in a secular school I'm limited in what I can share with the children, but I can pray that they will discover the real meaning of Christmas.

As for celebrating on 25th December, well that's when I'll celebrate, and I'm really happy that this year it is a Sunday, but if I was living in a country that celebrated Christ's birth on another day I could handle that too!

Have a blessed Christmas as you share traditions and the real meaning of Chistmas.

Stephanie said...

Really, really appreciate your thoughts here. It is so hard. I distinctly remember many very similar conversations!!

Interestingly, now I live in a "Christian" nation... but sometimes getting passed the "forms" and "traditions" and digging into real meaning is like hitting your head against a stone wall!
It is so good to look at what/how/why we celebrate the ways we do and I love your idea of helping the Turkish Christian ladies figure out what that means for them--- great post, good thoughts! Thank you.

OliveTree said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, friends. Creatively Content, I like your idea of distributing Christmas cookies! I did that for Easter last year.

May you have a blessed Christmas in Cambodia, Karen.

Laura said...

This is so fascinating, Olive. Living and celebrating Christ's birth here in the U.S., we take so much for granted. Advent has come to mean so much to me--this waiting for our Savior's birth and how it parallels the waiting we do now. I marvel at the obstacles you face and will be praying for many seeds to be planted.

OliveTree said...

Thanks, Laura. One thing I like about being here as a family is that we can focus on the spiritual meaning of Christmas more without so much emphasis on gift giving and buying gifts.

Still I miss many things about the U.S. at this time of year!

Shanda said...

This is a huge issue. Many of our celebrations can distract and even confuse people . I just got back from Thailand and on Christmas eve, all the Christians come together for worship celebrations: no trees or gifts. They bring their bed mats, spend the night, worship and have a meal. It is all about Jesus. I was hesitant to really explain how we do Christmas.
You are in such a unique and God given place right now to minister and show Jesus. Praying that yoru celebrations this year will draw people to HIM

OliveTree said...

That sounds like a wonderful celebration in Thailand, Shanda. Thanks for that prayer. It's mine as well.

Columba Lisa Smith said...

That is very interesting! My kids and I were just trying to remember something you had shared about Christmas trees in Turkey. Now we know - they're New Year's! I think putting out the manger scene was the right choice.
My Christmas cross-cultural experience is much tamer. When we moved to the U.S., Christmas was never the same. I was 12; and I've always missed the English Christmas celebration. Especially wonderful was hearing church bells Christmas morning, and going to church. Everyone went! It was so fun to see our friends Christmas morning and tell each other what we got in our stockings.
I'm trying to find your address so I can send you an idolatrous Christmas card! ; ) Blessings!

Kristy Wacek said...


I am working on our December edition of our Connection publication at Women of the Harvest. We are looking for articles that show a bit of cross-cultural Christmas. I was looking at different authors on our Writer’s Blog and came across this blog entry. Would you be interested in revamping it into an article (500-100 words)? Please email me at editor@womenoftheharvest and let me know. Thanks!

Blessings to you,
Kristy Wacek