This year, my Christmas was so new and different and lovely. I've never spent a Christmas away from home before, and I wasn't really looking forward to it. But the community here made me feel welcome, my family did a lot to include even though I'm so far away, and so many Afghans wished me Merry Christmas and did their best to ease my homesickness. Thanks to their kindness, I enjoyed it far more than I expected, and I wanted to share some of it with you.
It began with snow! The first major snowfall was last week, and it's snowing again today. In between, there's been snow on the ground, and blue, sunny skies. I love it!
I was able to attend several church services. One was an early Christmas service complete with a choir and treats afterward. Another was a Christmas day service at the only Catholic church in Kabul, in the Italian Embassy. I heard about that church months ago, but it's rather far away and hard to get to. This week, I finally made it, and it was so wonderful. The priest was Italian, and there were readings in Italian, English, and French. At the end of the Mass, each nationality sang a Christmas song from their homeland, and it was really beautiful.
There was a Christmas tea a few weeks ago, and this was one of the decorations. They gave it to me to take home after, and one night at dinner with my host siblings, I used it as a sort-of Advent wreath. I sang “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” to them and told them what Advent is.
I also introduced my host siblings to frosted Christmas cookies. Apparently, most Afghans don't bake much, because they don't have ovens and it's just as easy to buy items from the bakery. We don't have an oven either, so we baked them in our bukhori (wood stove.) It has a little compartment that I think is designed for drying wet wood, but it made delicious cookies!
Next up was a Christmas party at the office. I brought homemade fudge and sugar cookies (slightly burned, whoops...) and frosting. We had a lot of fun decorating our own cookies. I told them a little about why we celebrate Christmas, and we did a White Elephant Exchange. It got so competitive, but it was a blast!
The cook's kids helped me decorate the wall.
On Christmas Eve, I went to the home of a friend and her family. My family's Christmas Eve tradition, and Christmas traditions in general, are all about family and spending time with all the relatives. Since our extended families aren't over here with us, expats in Kabul find other ways to celebrate. On Christmas Eve, for example, I joined a group of about 15 at this friend's house. Adults and kids. Singing carols. Yummy treats (first time I've ever had peppermint ice cream, and it was delicious!) Reading the Christmas story and talking about how God has worked in our lives this year. Sharing stories and having a lovely conversation, interrupted by little ones who wanted to tell us about the Grinch or sing a Christmas song she'd written herself.
At one point, we got on the topic of body armor, because all of the people who are supported by USAID were recently issued vests and hats. I tried them on- so heavy! I took this picture because I thought it was an interesting contrast. It gave me so much more respect for those who are serving our country in the military. That life is not for me, but I respect those who do it. I know their Christmas was probably much different from mine, but I hope it was happy.
On Christmas morning, I went to another family's home. The mom is from England, her husband's from Scotland, and they have four kids. They made a full English breakfast- bacon (which I haven't eaten in months!), tomatoes and mushrooms, bread, granola, yogurt, pomegranate seeds, homemade orange juice. I'm staying at a friend's place for part of my vacation (She's been so wonderfully kind! It's been a lot of fun staying with her), and she made cinnamon rolls and an incredible spinach quiche for the breakfast. Talk about a food coma!
We stayed for a few hours to watch the kids open presents and play outside. One of the gifts was a window spray and stencils of Christmas scenes, and it made the windows look so festive.
That night, I went to a game night at the home of another family, a young married couple. Their house was beautifully decorated. She made her own nativity scene out of paper and cut out tiny, delicate snowflakes to hang in the entry way. Gorgeous!
One of the best parts of my Christmas, though, I don't have any pictures of. On Christmas morning, I was able to Skype with my family, to feel like I was there as they opened gifts, to hear the laughter and the teasing and the music that so often define my memories of Christmas morning. Then again the next day, when, despite a twelve and a half hour time difference, I got to Skype in and join the gift card exchange with all the relatives. I've been more homesick in the past week than ever before, but I'm so thankful for my incredible family, who work around the time difference and send e-cards and Facebook notes to remind me that they are missing me too.
A few weeks ago, I heard someone talk about how Christmas in Kabul can make us better appreciate the holiday, and I think it's kind of true. We don't have a lot of options for Christmas shopping, so gifts are thoughtfully chosen ahead of time or thoughtfully made by hand. Our power goes out constantly and we don't have central heating even when it's on, so we curl up by the fire with friends and make music with our own voices. We live in a society where most people don't know much about Christmas, and when we get chances to tell them about it, it makes us remember. We know what it's like to have armed soldiers on our streets, just like the Roman legionaries, and we wear headscarves and long skirts, just like Mary did. We have herds of sheep and shepherds walking up and down our streets, and we know that their life isn't as romantic as the Christmas story depicts; the angels' choice of these men to first see Jesus shows that He came for all people. We live in a society where a mother might give birth to fourteen children and have only half make it past their fifth birthday, so we know how incredible it is that Christ came to us as a helpless baby.
Christmas is about family and about giving and about good food, but at its root, it's about Jesus. When I made myself stop and look past the homesickness, the traditions I'm missing, the absent Christmas lights, I better remember the real reason we celebrate.
Merry Christmas, everyone!