The Middle East seemed like a perfect place to get away from fake pine trees, creepy santas and even creepier elves during the holidays. I did realize that Bethlehem was where Jesus was born, and that because of all the churches in the holy land, there might be some Christmassy stuff laying around for tourists to pick up.
But I honestly felt by visiting one country that was 75% Jewish, 16% Muslim and 2% Christian (the rest of the people being ambiguous) and another country 90% Sunni, 2% Shia and 8% Christian-ish, the odds were in my favor that I could evade santa and his eight tiny reindeer. Certainly there wouldn’t be any pine trees, tinsel or fake snow!
[insert laugh track here].
Though I sought to escape Christmas, Christmas found me nonetheless–and came back with a vengeance.
Christmas Assault #1: Jerusalem YMCA
During our visit to Jerusalem, we lodged at the YMCA, which having “Christian” in the acronym, is a likely bet for Christmas decor. While the pine tree was no big surprise, I was bemused to see the dining room windows adorned with fake snow.
Christmas Assault #2: Jaffa Gate Christmas ‘Market’
Perhaps it is unfair to compare any Christmas market in the world with those in Germany, but the market outside the Jaffa Gate blind-sided me with its cheesiness. Blue tarps strung on metal poles, people wearing santa hats, an eight-foot tall inflatable santa, an illuminated ‘tree’ AND to completely bombard our senses, American Christmas music. (I haven’t heard Silent Night by Annie Lennox in a LONG time!)
Christmas Assault #3: Movenpick Hotel, Petra, Jordan
Becoming emotionally stable again after my traumatic experience at the Jaffa Gate market, I sought refuge in the least likely of places to honor Christmas with a fake pine tree: the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
While sipping my hibiscus juice during check-in at the Movenpick hotel at Petra, I noticed in the foyer, amongst the potted palms, a huge Christmas tree. At first I thought our journey along the winding desert road had parched my brain and I was hallucinating. But alas, it was a real, fake tree. Thus realizing Christmas was out to get me, I forced the kids to pose for another picture.
The Final Christmas Assault: U Coral Beach Club, Eilat
Not only did Christmas follow me from Wadi Musa to Eilat, but it twisted my arm behind my back until I fell to my knees, crying ‘Shalom!’ and wishing for the peace and harmony of a Christmas Eve sale at Wal-Mart.
Since my teenage son alone can eat his weight in falafel, staying at an all-inclusive resort seemed like a good idea for the nine of us. Little did I know that all-inclusive meant ‘family-friendly,’ which translated means ‘frenetic activities for kids and an open bar for parents.’
We were bombarded with fake trees, stuffed santas poking their creepy faces out from everywhere, a steady stream of Christmas music, tinsel, and we saw hotel staffers dressed as sleeping children and flanking the hall on our way into the breakfast room, a guy in plaid boxers with suspenders and a santa hat, inviting our kids to a trivia game, dance parties every night and, the coup d’état, Israeli children having milk and cookies while waiting for a Brazilian santa, who would be driving up on a Harley.
It was cheesy. It was gaudy. As my friend said, it was ‘garish.’ And yet, this is where we spent our ‘Silent Night.’ Despite it all, I DID manage it with a laugh, and a little Irish Cream added to my coffee.
*Editor’s note: In all fairness, the staffers were genuinely concerned with having fun and involving kids in activities. They were wonderful in their sincerity and very helpful and welcoming.
The Real Christmas
On Christmas Eve, the few items we had purchased for the kids were tucked away, and we decided to place them inside the kids’ adventure hats. We didn’t tell them, and I don’t think the kids expected to get anything at all, since we had told them the trip was the present. Honestly, my friend and I felt excited, figuring out how to sneak the presents into the hats, and when and where to place them around the hotel room. It was the most regret-free fun I’ve ever had on Christmas Eve.
Christmas morning, the girls and I awoke (the boys were in another room with their dad), and I gave each of them a ‘Christmas’ can of Coke, which is a special treat (especially at 6:00 am). I also had forgotten that I had some fake Nabatean coins in my purse that I’d picked up in Petra, and so, I handed those out to the girls as their Christmas presents. I got out my bible, and we read some and talked about Christmas and what it has to do (or does not have to do) with the birth of Jesus Christ.
Before we knew it, it was time for our ‘real’ Christmas to begin. My friend and I set up the adventure hats in her room and then had the kids go in, find their hats, and uncover their gifts. They were SO happy that they weren’t just getting fake Nabatean coins! Even though the presents they got could fit into their carry-ons, the kids were just as happy as any other Christmas. As Katie put it, “The best Christmas is the one you’re having right now!”
I don’t know if we will embark on another Christmas adventure (the words Scuba Diving and Indian Ocean keep coming to mind), but I do know that despite West meeting East in a big, loud way this year, it was the most memorable Christmas the Wellman family has had thus far.
May God bless you with peace in the new year!
Ours is probably the only house in this village that smells like pumpkin pie and turkey today. Like many of you, yesterday was spent cooking, running errands, cooking some more, and translating the word for ‘nutmeg’ into German.
Holidays, especially ones that are country-specific, can be difficult when you live abroad. In a few hours, everyone will pour into Grandma’s house, my aunts bringing their little lap dogs and plenty of great food.
And I won’t be there.
I am thankful for all those years I could be with my family, but I am also thankful for what I have now, at this very moment.
- the God of the Universe, who daily gives me reasons to be thankful
- my husband, who I love dearly
- my kids, who make me laugh and who inspire me
- my food processor, and the fact that I can afford to put food in it
- my friends, who are like family to me
- I have legs that will carry me through a marathon, if the mind is willing
- my aches and pains, because they keep me on the right path
- I can write words on a page that people want to read
- my food allergies, because they force me to eat healthy(ish) whether I like it or not
- I live in Europe, which is quite amazing when I really think about it
This list could go on and on, and I’m sure yours could too.
I could write volumes about my kids, and how absolutely amazing they are. Sometimes I look at them and think, “Where did you come from?” I know I bore them, and raised them, but they seem too good to be true for a person like me, with so many dark chapters in my backstory.
I could also rave about my friends, because I never thought that I, mid-narrative, would make friends who feel like sisters.
But I don’t want you to get the idea that my life boils down to a perfect little list of blessings.
My life does contain its share of difficult times: as much as I’d like to, I can’t simply edit them out of my life, though I can dress them up and make them look presentable.
Every marriage has issues to be worked out, every child needs correction from time to time, every parent needs consistency and patience, which are not easy things to balance. Sometimes we go through inner struggles as God seeks to refine us, and too often, these inner struggles are taken out on those around us. We get frustrated or discouraged or our feelings are hurt–these things are all part of life. And in retrospect, I AM thankful for the hard times, because they make me realize my own frailty, and my utter reliance upon God.
I have a lot to be thankful for–even the things that are not so pleasant to talk about. I’m sure the pilgrims were the same way. Theirs was not an easy journey–working eleven years in Holland to prepare for the trip, getting scammed, their money stolen, thrown in jail, persecuted by the government, having the “good” ship sink, having their friends (who probably felt like family to them) die in front of them, arriving in a frozen wasteland and having more people die, encountering a vastly different culture, and trying to walk with God through it all.
How could they NOT give in to despair during their journey? How could they go on AFTER the Thanksgiving feast was over?
Their journey, filled with toil and horrors that would send us straight to the doctor for antidepressants, forged them into a group of people who could endure in a hard, foreign land. And I am thankful they held on.
Struggles are difficult, and I wouldn’t wish hardship upon anyone, but as you make your list of thankfulness this year, ponder the bad stuff too. If you can’t even look at the hard times without falling apart, then maybe it’s time to turn to God.
He is the only one who can pick up the pieces, no matter where in this world you are.
There is hope, once the feast is over.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
For my family in the States, will someone please give Grandma a hug for me?