I can still hear the tone in her voice as she asked me, “Could we do Christmas together this year? We were SO lonely last year.” I had only been in the Philippines about 30 minutes, had fast tracked through immigration, found our bags, and there were our college-mates, waiting outside. Between holding tight to children (hers and mine), dragging bags, trying to follow the guy who tracked us through customs, and fending off the over-eager taxi drivers, I wasn’t sure I had heard her right. It was only the middle of October.

Christmas does things to us when we leave our home, family, and culture. Christmas cuts to the core of loneliness and loss. Christmas, like breakfast, is uniquely personal. We all have a “way we do Christmas” and often that “way” includes places that are familiar. Christmas is about the most glorious season in the year, but it can be the least glorious and the most painful if we are far from all that has made it wonderful for us in the past.

I hadn’t really pondered Christmas. Yes, I’d be far from home but I had my husband and children. We would MAKE Christmas happen. But then, I had grown up in a family that never tied Christmas to a place because none of our extended family lived near us. Christmas often meant a train trip to Florida, or a flight to Kansas, or a drive to New England from our mid-Atlantic home. “Home for Christmas” was a novelty but that didn’t make Christmas any less special.

That first Christmas on the other side of the world was a new step in mobile Christmases. It began with hearing Christmas carols our first Sunday, in October, eating pizza. Somehow, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” was a little ludicrous in the tropics, even with the air conditioning on full blast.

We had no Christmas tree so we made one out of strips of green ribbon. We had no decorations so we crafted a nativity out of scraps of fabric, glue, and Popsicle sticks. Two of those little figures still rest quietly in the bottom of my Christmas décor box – not that I use them now, but each year they bring a flood of memories. Presents were few because it was too far and too expensive to send much, but there was enough.

The capstone was our joint Christmas celebration with friends who invited us to share Christmas with them. We had been friends before, but not particularly close. We certainly had never celebrated Christmas together. Now we chose to be family. We shared ideas from our various pasts and created a Christmas, in fact three successive Christmases, that our adult children still remember. The first year they had a tree with lights and my children were entranced. The next year we had a tree that my parents had sent in small bits and pieces all year, and we all were entranced. The last year together we drove over the mountains, away from the city, through mountain barrios where bravely decorated little palm branches were shining in each tiny mountain house we passed. Somehow we fabricated a plum pudding that was fantastic – and has never been replicated.

It was the beginning of several important life lessons. The first was that 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. Over the years of transitory living we learned to have a few small things that said “Christmas” to all of us. All my daughters play Filipino music to decorate their trees. There are also some rather ugly, but serviceable and packable, stockings that have been hung in all sorts of places to be filled with goodies.

A second lesson is that Christmas doesn’t have to be the same every year. We have memories of digging Christmas out of a box, left by a sweet single missionary whose flat we were renting in Hong Kong. We lovingly pulled out the things she’d told us to use, and then added some more goodies to it before we packed it away. 

Another year we celebrated with our daughter’s in-laws in Africa. Opening gifts was hilarious and crazy because we had all determined to spend as little money as possible so there was nothing to carry home. A jar of olives, a chocolate bar, or a bottle of bitters was given with great ceremony. And quickly consumed. We’d visited a posh safari hotel with pompous waiters, so at Christmas dinner, my son-in-law’s dad played the waiter and set the table with every single piece of flatware they owned. That was 15 years ago but all you have to do is put a towel over your arm and silverware in your hand and we all laugh at the memory of “Sir Rolly.”

My mother’s last Christmas we drove to her place six hundred miles away. She had said, “No tree.” And we agreed. But her pastor thought that was terrible and we arrived to find a fresh tree by the door. She had NO decorations, so we bought one string of twinkle lights and the kids all set to work fashioning snowflakes out of white paper and scissors. It was gorgeous.

Another lesson I learned was that Christmas is a time to share, not hoard. My friend who plaintively asked if we could share Christmas with them started an avalanche of friendship that has continued for decades. Together we’ve weathered hardship, distance, pain, sorrow, and loss. We’ve prayed for each other, consoled each other, prayed for each other’s kids, and lived alongside each other, even though we have always lived hundreds, thousands of miles apart.

Years after our first Christmas together her husband fell into sin and they returned from overseas. When he continued to deceive her, she made the hard decision to leave him. It was Christmas, and she was in the depths of loneliness once again. Her adult sons were reeling from the pain in their family. I wrote and said, “Come, share Christmas with us.”

It was a small, intimate Christmas, with bitter cold, wood fires, long walks. There also was Filipino music and rich memories of warmth, palm trees, and better times. It was a Christmas of healing and deep meaning as we pondered the Word made Flesh, the God of the Universe, leaving all that was familiar and comfortable and being born in a bleak corner of Israel with shepherds the only ones seeming to celebrate his arrival.

Christmas. We want it to be glorious, but in truth, Christmas was not glorious for God the Father. It was separation, and an understanding that pain was coming. Mary too, pondered these things in her heart. May our Christmas, wherever in the world God has put us, be one where we share life with whomever God has near us, bask in the light of Bethlehem’s star, and recognize that pain and glory can live side by side.

This post originally appeared on Thrive ministry’s online magazine.