Last Updated on March 21, 2018

It needs to be said. For a mzungu (a foreigner), Christmas on the Equator is a little … weird. You’ve got the sun shining away at a pleasant 80 or so degrees, my mango tree is finishing up its dazzling season, and my avocado tree is about to get started.

But to be honest, it’s not just living in a place that has no idea what a “white Christmas” is. Some of you military moms know what I’m talking about. Hopefully this won’t sound like complaining; but truth be told, most of what “wraps” the true meaning of Christmas for me—around the real package of Christ’s birth—is not there this year. There are no light displays, few Christmas programs, no parties that I know of (maybe it’s me!), no almond bark or molasses or wassail or corn syrup or peppermints or Pumpkin Spice Lattes. You won’t find any Salvation Army bell-ringers, and only the large, commercial stores have decorations.

Most people here can’t afford presents, much less new ones, and we’re trying to keep things simple, too. But it can be a bit challenging to find mzungu-ish gifts anyway. More than anything, my extended family is scattered around the world like tinsel. I realized last night that if I’m honest, I don’t want to think much about what would make things more Christmas-y. That’s sort of painful.

But I know that God created seven feasts for the Old Testament Hebrews, which tells me something. Heck, Jesus’ big debut was making wine from water for a wedding. The Bible ends with His own wedding. God’s the pinnacle of our joy, of our feasts and revelry. And I think He uses our senses—the evergreen smells; the clam dip (it’s a Breitenstein thing); the fairy lights; Jack Frost nipping at your nose—to cement our minds to what we can’t see.

All the hoopla for a wedding or any other celebration is not just a symbol. It’s a taste-it-see-it-smell-it-feel-it-hear-it cue for our brains to know, this is good stuff. I’m thinking Psych 101: positive association. We remember, this is what’s worth celebrating, worth pulling out all the stops. Taste and see—our God is good. He’s the fullness of all we’re hoping for, all that truly fulfills us.

Plus, I’ve got the kid element going on over here. As much as I would rather close myself in the closet for awhile—maybe to avoid the seizure-inducing light cycle of our hand-me-down tree?—I don’t want my kids to think, “I can’t wait till we can actually celebrate Christmas in the States.” I don’t want Christmas to pass them by, or more importantly, for them to miss the significance of this day, of God’s gift. Really, I shouldn’t be missing it either.

So. I am setting my internal bah-humbug aside, and we are getting creative. Stockings will be hung by the windows with care. Our schoolroom ceiling is covered with various lengths of thread suspending my kids’ paper snowflakes (J. calls them “cornflakes.” Have we been in Africa too long?), with the school doors flung open, the flakes swirl around. We’ve rolled out and baked salt dough ornaments to paint.
And there are a lot of ways for kids to get involved with giving and serving here! I think we’ll mix up some no-corn syrup homemade marshmallows next week (think Little House on the Prairie more than Martha Stewart), maybe float them in some cocoa. I’m blasting Christmas music and dancing around with my kids … though I admit to fast-forwarding through “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

There are some definite perks to a tropical Christmas. I loved that a Ugandan friend could decorate the tree with us this year, hoisting the kids up to the higher branches and singing along to our favorite Christmas songs. I love that things are simpler this year—a lot less stuff, a little more originality. No, this year won’t be the same. But that’s not all bad.


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  1. Melissa Hutsell says:

    Oh to think of the compassion that God is sewing so beautifully in your life for those who can’t be “Home for Christmas.” I think you are so right about how God has always used our senses to tie the important things into our souls. The sights and smells and whatnots. I don’t know if it is me getting older or if the world just gets a little darker (probably both) but it is getting harder and harder to “feel” the merriment of all those worldly trappings anyway. Trying to carve out the meaning and focus on the real purpose is having to become more and more intentional for all of us I think. Thinking of you and yours as you become VERY intentional to bring Christmas to your African home and as you miss your families so. We love you!

  2. Thanks for sharing your world, Janel! It’s hard to imagine!

  3. I’m so grateful for your encouragement, ladies. God’s definitely doing something beautiful over here for Christmas!

  4. I appreciate the simplicity you are finding there, but I understand how much you miss. Thank you for the reminder of what we should really focus on, which is Jesus, and for showing us how to find fun in the little things.