My three sons are experiencing their first Christmas season in the United States this year. They are not impressed. The tree that fits in our small rented house is too tiny. We moved from Ukraine to Southern California, so there’s no snow. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas, they say.

I get it. Twelve years ago, I started celebrating Christmas in Ukraine. I didn’t have kids yet, but I sure did have traditions that I’d unintentionally hauled with me all the way from California.

To get a tree right after Thanksgiving, my husband and I paid about $40 for a potted version on sale at a nursery, probably intended for someone to plant at their village home. To us, that price seemed normal. Our language teacher, on the other hand, shook her head and laughed about it for years. We understood her reaction four weeks later, when beautiful trees appeared for sale on every street corner — priced at $10 or less and just in time for New Year’s, when Ukrainians decorate trees and give gifts.

As happens in so many areas of a cross-cultural worker’s life, our Christmas season morphed as we abandoned certain American traditions and incorporated some of the lovely ways that Ukrainians celebrate at this time of year.


The cake for our January 7 celebration.

We enjoyed a lengthened Christmas season, opening stockings before the kids went to their public school on December 25, giving gifts on January 1 and more quietly marking our Savior’s birth by having friends over for cake and Scripture reading on January 7, when Eastern Orthodox countries observe Christ’s birth.

We treasured those raucous January 1sts and those quiet January 7ths — and we don’t intend to leave them in Ukraine. We’ve carried them back to California. Some of our SEND women recently gathered online to share other Advent and Christmas traditions they treasure that can be recreated wherever they go:

  • Switch up family devotions. Read a bit of the Christmas story out of the gospels each day in December. For older kids and adults, check out online Advent resources like this one from Biola University (you’re not too late: it runs through January 8).
  • Memorize favorite verses about the incarnation. Mine is from Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1: “Because of God’s tender mercy, the light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide us to the path of peace.” (New Living Translation)
  • Carry along a few special ornaments and decorations. If you can’t get a traditional tree, click here to see creative “trees” for people living in areas without evergreens.

This year’s Advent fort — a tradition that’s easy to recreate in almost any context.

  • Build a fort and have a family sleepover around whatever kind of tree you’ve managed to procure.
  • Make your media merry: Watch Christmas movies, read Christmas stories, listen to Christmas music.
  • Serve a special breakfast menu on Christmas morning.
  • Skype with loved ones. If you’re in your home culture, that can mean friends back on the field.
  • Make space: Have your children sort through their toys in December and find somewhere to donate them.

Even with all this intentionality, Christmas naturally highlights one of the hard truths of missionary life: We live far away from many of our beloveds. One longtime SEND missionary said, “To this day I cannot listen to the Christmas carol ‘I’ll be Home for Christmas,’ because I know I won’t be home for Christmas and no, you can’t count on me.”

So give yourself (and your family) a break. If it doesn’t “feel” like Christmas, talk about it, but don’t assume your efforts at creating a merry-and-bright season have been in vain. Ask your kids which activities feel essential to Christmas to them and focus your time and effort on those things. And remember, the manger was a place of joy and of grit — it’s okay if your family’s holiday season gets emotionally messy, too.


You might also like …

Pain and Glory — ‘Christmas is portable. It can happen anywhere if you are willing work at it, and each place you celebrate leaves an imprint in your memory. Christmas doesn’t have to be the same every year.’

Enter the Mess — ‘The very reason we celebrate during this dark, cold month is that we have a Savior who didn’t remain distant, who didn’t stand back and watch it all unfold. He came and intentionally entered the mess.’

The Truth About Being a Missionary at Christmas — “The traditions we left behind, no matter how non-essential, are genuine losses. Just like giving up indoor heat or your heart language or your mom and dad. So, missionary, take it as a loss. Accept it. And then embrace it.”

Last Christmas: A family on the brink of moving overseas shares what their last Christmas in North America feels like.