Giáng Sinh. Shèngdàn. Weihnachten. Noël. Navidad. Christmas. Whatever you want to call it, it truly is the most wonderful time of the year!
Growing up in the United States, we celebrated Christmas like everyone else—so I thought. We bought a tree, hung lights, decorated it with ornaments, threw silver tinsel on it (I’m dating myself; I know), and marveled at how bright it shone. We would always have Christmas Eve service at our Vietnamese church where all members were part of a choir: the children’s, young adult’s, women’s, or special choir. (It was tradition––everyone started practicing in September after church!) We would then listen to the pastor give the sermon and an evangelistic call, and at the end, they would pass out awards to those who completed the all-church end-of-the-year Bible passage memorization contest (in which I always tried to get first place).
Afterward would be our family dinner, with cousins and aunts and uncles, which was great because more presents abounded when extended family got together. And Christmas included the best Vietnamese food of the year. All my favorites would arrive, homemade or bought at a local Vietnamese restaurant––jackfruit salad, crab and asparagus soup, steamed rice cakes with shrimp, a fruit platter with mangos, guavas, and lychees. (These weren’t necessarily “Christmas” food, but food for special occasions.) As a child, although I knew it was about the birth of Christ, Christmas was celebrated for more than that.
As I grew older, I realized that others didn’t have the same Christmas traditions as I did––who would’ve thought?! Every family celebrates Christmas slightly different, so of course every culture will celebrate Christmas differently as well.
When I lived in China after graduating college, I had the opportunity to travel to Harbin for Christmas. Being in the cold north, they held the annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Contest. For Christmas, they celebrated winter and the holiday season with elaborate life-sized sculptures of dragons, palaces, cityscapes, and national monuments all lit up with underlighting. It was beautiful and bright but had no connection to Christ at all. Tea was the drink of choice and candied fruit skewers could be bought at any street vendor. Celebrating with lights and having family time was emphasized, but being a communist country, Christ was pushed to the shadows nationally and otherwise.
Many years later, while living in Europe, I thought surely Christ would be celebrated here. One winter, I decided to go on my own European Christmas tour, starting in Brussels, Belgium, to Lille, France, to Monschau, Germany, and ending in Maastricht, Netherlands. I dragged my family along as we road-tripped through Europe, looking for the ultimate Christmas market. As a tourist, it was a trip of a lifetime with its lit-up ferris wheels, bell-shaped chocolates, wooden nutcrackers, and handmade ornaments. Market stalls of craftsmanship lined the town squares with trinkets and décor and food. Waffles and fries and sausages dominated our meals, not to mention a good amount of macarons, pastries, and mugs of hot chocolate. Food does not disappoint in a European Christmas, but again, Christmas had been secularized and even nativities were few and far between.
A couple years later, we tried to experience Christmas in Scandinavia, so we went to Denmark. Their hygge lifestyle is reflected in their holiday traditions, a minimalistic but cozy atmosphere with gløgg and æbleskiver in hand (mulled wine and warm mini pancake balls). People riding their bikes through a light snow flurry with a basket of mistletoe makes you appreciate the simplicity of life. But “Happy Holidays” reigned more than “Merry Christmas.”
Although the Christmas of Northern European countries had its appeal, Spain, our home country for almost seven years, had my favorite Christmas traditions. Throughout every city and town, not only lights and the traditional decorations are put up, but they also display the belen. Spanish for Bethlehem, the belen is a nativity set on steroids. It’s not just Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus; it’s the whole town. The shopkeeper, the fishmonger, the butcher, the baker. The homes, the inns, the shops, and the stables.
Almost every government building, hospital, train station, and plaza displays a version of this Bethlehem nativity, and the Spanish people love it. Understand my surprise when my atheist friend invited me to take me on a tour of many of the belenes around Madrid. We marveled at the construction and the detail of every little piece, the carvings on the shepherd’s staff, the scales on the fish, the pigeons eating bread crumbs, the creases in baby Jesus’ swaddling cloth. If in Spain during Christmas, wander through any random church, and you’ll likely find a belen or two.
I also love that on January 6, they celebrate Dia de Los Reyes, commemorating the day the wise men arrived, with parades and festivities, extending the Christmas season as well as reminding us more of the biblical story. Southern Europe, which includes more Catholic nations, involves the biblical stories in their holiday traditions more than Northern Europe does. But at the end of the day, culturally, they love them for their tradition, not for their truth.
It’s quite clear that the world celebrates Christmas very differently, and individuals celebrate Christmas very differently even in the same culture. But amidst it all, we are reminded of what’s most important. Though art, craftsmanship, and the creative visual presentations of Christmas bring beauty into the world, without the artistry of a God who humbled Himself to become one of us, to save us, it would all be pointless. Though shopping and entertainment during Christmas gives us a thrill, without Christ, this type of joy is temporary and leaves us empty. And though we crave the ambience of Christmas, the coziness of winter, and feelings of comfort and wood-burning fireplaces, without the incarnation, our feelings of peace will fade after that last log has turned to ash. And even if we celebrate with Christ at the center, but only as a religious tradition without treasuring Christ as Lord and Savior in our own hearts, our nativities are nothing more than ceramic figurines.
If you are able to travel in the future (post-COVID-19 restrictions), I encourage you to experience the Christmas season in another culture. It opens our mind to the diversity in our world and reminds us that God is at work everywhere. Though Christmas can be commercialized in certain places, it reminds us to pray for the truth of His story to break through. No other time of year are hearts more softened to the gospel truth. And whether we are abroad or celebrating Christmas in our own hometown, remember that the magic of Christmas is minimal compared to the miracle of Christmas. Emmanuel. God with us. And only there lies our reason to celebrate.
Y Bonesteele has her MDiv. from Talbot School of Theology and has traveled the world on mission. She moved last year from Spain to Middle Tennessee with her husband and four kids, having to teach them that stocking stuffers are not the paper you find in new shoes.