Angels From the Rooftop – A Christmas Story from Pakistan

Bethlehem Gate

My mom grew up in a small town in Massachusetts called Winchendon known at the time for its toy factory. The toy factory made a variety of wooden toys and the town earned the well-deserved nickname of Toy Town. A large wooden rocking horse, created in 1912 and recreated in the 1980’s, stood under a pavilion in the center of town, symbolic of the town’s history

My mom was named Pauline and she was the first-born, the oldest of four children born to my maternal grandparents, Ruth and Stanley Kolodinski. Her’s was a world of seasons; hot, humid summers, fall with red and golden foliage, white Christmases, and rainy April’s that brought out the glorious mountain laurel in late June. She knew baked beans, brown bread and New England boiled dinners.

The long sea journey that took her, my father and my oldest brother to Pakistan in 1954 took her from a town of sidewalks and bay windows to a desert with dusty palm trees and Bougainvillea. The contrast between her life in New England and that in Pakistan could not have been more pronounced. Her story was one of a commitment and calling rooted deeply in her soul; a story with many chapters that began with a move across the world to create a home and life in Pakistan.

Christmases in Pakistan differ dramatically from those in the west. As an Islamic Republic, the majority of the population is Muslim and green, red, and golden twinkling fairylands and holiday music don’t exist. Christmas traditions among the minority Christian population include long drama presentations depicting the Christmas story, all night Christmas caroling parties and new clothes for everyone in the family. Christmas was a time where my parents opened up our home to people coming from near and far, serving hundreds of cups of sweet Pakistani chai throughout the day along with special sweets and savory snacks.

When my mom and dad first arrived, adjusting to Christmases in Pakistan was a challenge. Loneliness and homesickness tended to come on like thick clouds, made more difficult by their desire to create magic for their children along with an acute awareness of the absence of grandparents and other extended family members back in the U.S. I don’t remember this happening, but I’ve no doubt that sometimes the effort to make things special for us kids overwhelmed and tears crept in, throats catching on Christmas carols as they celebrated Christmas far away from where they had been raised.

The town they lived in at the time of this story possibly resembled ancient Bethlehem more than any place on earth. Dusty streets, flat-roofed houses with courtyards, and donkeys and ox carts that brayed and roamed outside were all a part of the landscape of Ratodero. Our house was located right in the middle of a neighborhood and we were the only foreigners in the entire town.

I was almost 3 years old in the Christmas of 1962. It was a Christmas where my mom experienced deep sadness and, despite the excitement of me and my brothers, felt more than ever like we were “deprived” of a “real” Christmas. It was a few days before Christmas that the feelings became more than she could bear and after we were put to bed, she went up on the roof top and looked out over the city of Ratodero. She gives words to her feelings in this narrative:

“Leaning against the wall, I pulled my sweater closer against the evening chill of December. The tears I had been holding back spilled over as I looked up at the stars, then out over the flat roofed houses where our neighbors were cooking their dinner. The smoke from wood and charcoal fires rose in wisps, and with it the now familiar odors of garlic, onions and spices. Familiar, yes, but at that moment the smells only reinforced the strangeness of this place. Then I wondered ‘Did Bethlehem look and smell something like this?’ – Bethlehem where God came down to become a human being, a little baby in a manger, in a setting not so different from some of our neighbor’s homes”.(Jars of Clay, page 128)

It was at this point, tears falling, experiencing the loneliness and sadness of a world apart, that she looked up at the dark, clear sky and as she watched the bright stars, millions of light years away, she heard singing, just as on that night so long ago, the shepherds heard singing. Could it be angels? It was a moment of wonder and awe that the God who she loved so deeply, who knew her frame, knew her sadness, would provide angels to bring comfort and a reminder that she was not alone.

There were no heavenly angels, but “earth angels” had arrived in the form of our dear friends, the Addletons and the Johnsons – two missionary families with 7 kids between them – who out of love for our family had traveled along a bumpy dusty road, remembering that we were alone in this city. There they stood in the street, outside our front door singing “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. Let Earth receive Her King!” I am too young to remember the celebration that followed, but my mom writes this:

“We woke our children, and together we sang Christmas Carols, ate Christmas cookies and drank cups of steaming tea. And I knew God had sent them to us on that very night to show me once again that no place where he sent us could ever be “God-forsaken” Jars of Clay, page 128

My mom, far removed from the snowy childhood Christmases of her past, where eggnog and Grandma K’s raisin-filled cookies were plentiful, taught us that Christmas is not magic that can quickly disappear, it’s wonder. It’s the wonder of the incarnation; it’s the wonder of God’s love; it’s the wonder of angels heard from rooftops.

Bloggers Note: If you like this post, check out some of these:

36 thoughts on “Angels From the Rooftop – A Christmas Story from Pakistan

    1. Yeah- that really hit me. One of our friends once said “if you despise the place and the people you have come to serve, you’d best either repent– or move” somehow that seems to go with the quote.

      Like

  1. It is a couple of months since you wrote this, but I had to say Thank you! Oh to meet your parents. There is something simple, joyful and honest in the post. We get so distracted with all the stuff. And yet the Lord knows our frame and is kind and compassionate in his gifts to us…people, relationships, kindred spirits, family and opportunities to express our love and celebrate together. How much more dear to our hearts because of His perfect timing.

    Like

      1. Lou Anne – why don’t you send me your address and I’ll get an autographed copy to you? My mom gave me an extra copy to give to a blog reader – perfect for you!

        Like

  2. Dear Marilyn I have read your Mum’s book, but it was so touching to read in your blog what she had written and how God ministered to her so beautifully.

    Like

  3. A beautiful story, beautifully written Marilyn! I love the tone from beginning to end it is mellow and sweet and touching. I guess if you wrote a book on your early childhood in Pakistan despite the differences and difficulties much of it would have this tone. It is the sweetness of nostalgia strengthened by depth of faith and all comes shining through.
    As a PS one thought: I do not know who coined the phrase God forsaken but if ever there was a lie that is one for I do not think that The heavens or earth or anything else that exists which we may not know of is that.
    God Bless you dear and your mom for passing on so much that is incredible to you.

    Like

    1. Ahhh – thank you so much for writing this! I was thinking about the phrase “God Forsaken” as well. I wonder, because of our finite minds and inability to see the big picture, if the phrase was developed because of that. So when we focus on the temporary and our “earth” eyes, as it were, we use the word or if not the word, think the thoughts, but as we attempt to view through the lens of faith and redemption there is a realization that God has not forsaken. More to think about….As always I am grateful for your mind and insight.

      Like

      1. After reading your reply I started telling my elder daughter that we seem to have begun some kind of inter faith dialogue. Then I stopped, as I realised that it wasn’t quite true because wouldn’t calling it interfaith suggest that there are more than one faiths. I think religions, meaning the ways one perceives God and his message to us may be many, but faith in Him is one. Its intensity can differ but faith in God in His Greatness, Mercy, His Wisdom and Might and most of all just in Him, in His Existence and His being there for us always and loving us. That faith is definitely one. What we seem to have begun is a strengthening of each other’s faith despite all religious differences and that is something that can be done by any people who believe in him because their souls are cut from the same cloth..

        Like

  4. Marilyn, Thanks for sharing this story. The cost of cross cultural missionary life is high. We love your family and appreciate only a litlle of what you all went through to bring the good news to Pakistan. I love you and your family, family extended!!

    Like

  5. What an exquisitely beautiful telling — in both your words and your Mom’s — of a moment filled with grace, love and wonder. It brought peace to my heart this day.

    Like

    1. So glad Cathy – I’ve always loved this Christmas story. It’s as much a tradition as hearing the story of the angels and Christmas Tree sweet rolls for Christmas Breakfast.

      Like

  6. Echo, echo. A beautiful story and testament to God’s grace. Thanks for sharing this insight into your lives in Pakistan.

    Like

    1. Thanks so much Judi – I have no doubt you could relate to some of what my mom felt. A Christmas I vividly remember is when we were in Winchendon and living in Grandma K’s half of the house! I got twin dollies that Christmas and was beside myself with excitement. So fun.

      Like

Add to the discussion...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s