The Fourth Friday of Advent: When Traditions don’t Translate

English: It is a typical old fashioned mud bri... By Robynn

Every year at this time of year I battle a sense of grief and a sense of loss….an uncertainty. There’s this accumulation of memories and conventions that no longer communicate.

Round pegs. Square holes.  

Although when I was growing up we had a whole collection of traditions none of them now seem to translate. And the fact is even then each year was a little different. Growing up in a small town in the heart of the Punjab province of Pakistan Christmas was as we made it. Mom sifted and stirred. She dipped and dotted, baked and iced cookies, cakes, and squares. She found substitutes for key ingredients and hoarded others that she had saved from trips to the nut and dried fruit market in Murree. She made fruit cake and carrot pudding, steamed pudding and lemon sponge cake. Dad made fudge and special sweet sauces for the puddings. We had to balance and juggle various visits to various villages. Dad preached countless “Burra Din” sermons. We did the village circuit, spending the nights in many of them: village number 443 or village number 5 or Mirpur Chuk were three of our favourites. Mom organized the pageant in each village. She wrapped turbans on wise men, handing fancy wrapped empty boxes of “frankincense, Gold and Myrrh” to the three. She entrusted the doll-baby-Jesus to a chosen Mary in each village. My brother Neil was often one of the shepherds, a thick wool shawl blanket draped around his shoulders. Usually I was the Angel of the Lord. I still have “Durro Muth….” — the Urdu-speaking Angel’s declaration in my head.  “Do Not Be Afraid for I bring you good tidings of great joy…”! We handed out white popcorn shaped hard sweets and oranges. The Christmas feast always included sweet rice and chicken curry!

The mission had their Christmas party and that was always a precious gathering. All the “aunts” and “uncles”(all the missionaries from our mission), scattered across the Thal Desert would come together for a celebration of Christ’s birth. More often than not, we would travel in our slightly dilapidated Land Rover jeep, through the desert, across the canals to Auntie Carol’s house in DGK [Dera Ghazi Khan]. There the aunties would compile their baked goodies and savory treats for an enormous spread. I remember as a child being enthralled by the number of yummy options. We would sing carols and exchange presents. The aunts would all exclaim at how we’d grown since they’d last seen us. The uncles would tell stories.

We had a real Auntie and Uncle, my mom’s sister and her husband and their two boys. Every year we tried to squeeze in a Christmas with them too. Those times with true extended family shared in a foreign place felt normal and wonderful. Looking  back I can see just how precious and rare that really was.

Our little family– Mom, Dad, my brother Neil and I would have our own little Christmas on yet another day tucked into the Christmas season. Usually, if we kids had anything to say about it, this happened before the rush of the villages. We’d read the Christmas story. We’d go around the circle open one gift at a time. We’d play games. On New Year’s Day, Neil and I, would open our stockings and then later in the day we would make a big dinner for mom and dad.

These were the ways we stretched out the joy, extended the celebration.

But none of that seems to work here.

Later after I grew up and married, my husband and I settled in India. There on that side of the border we created our own Christmas traditions. A week or so before Christmas day we exchanged gifts and goodies with our very close friends on what came to be known as “Feast Night”. The International church commended the Advent readings and candles for the four Sundays of Advent. Often we went together with others in the community and put on a large Christmas program for the community. On Christmas morning we’d open presents with our three children and have a special brunch. I’d bake special Christmas bread and put out bowls of nuts and fruit. Later in the afternoon we’d have our landlord’s family for tea or we’d host an open house for all of our neighbours and friends. In the late afternoon we’d go to the Leper Colony to celebrate with our friends there. We’d visit the residents, deliver food, drink chai, play with the colony’s children and then return home tired and happy.

But very little of that seems to work here either. Because now we live in Kansas.

And we’re forced again to make it up as we go along.

The kids have memories. They seem to make up traditions that I’m not sure we’ve ever really had! We do that? Really? Hmm…ok. But they’re older now and they help. The girls bake cookies. Our son helps decorate. They’ve become generous with each other in their gift giving—which is nothing short of a miracle and very sweet to see.  My husband’s family all live here — we really can go “over the river and through the woods” to Grandma’s house. And we do! I’ve watched old Christmas movies, that are a part of everyone else’s Christmas repertoire, for the first time. I’ve learnt a whole new set of Christmas songs that still mystify me (Grandma got run over by a reindeer??).

My own mom and dad and Neil and his family sometimes come to Kansas or we go to where they are. When we’re together Pakistan shows up as we belt out Christmas carols in Urdu or Punjabi. We eat curry and reminisce. We indulge those memories and we laugh and sometimes we cry.

Those other traditions from yesteryear don’t often translate….but I suppose that’s ok. The nostalgia often threatens to choke my joy. I remember and there’s no relevance for many of those memories…there’s no language to begin to articulate those things of the past. Sometimes I try. Sometimes I don’t. I smile. I sip my tea. I dip my cookie.

I’m learning a whole new way of talking Christmas!

14 thoughts on “The Fourth Friday of Advent: When Traditions don’t Translate

  1. Thank you for sharing those memories. I have worked in Pakistan, but never over the holidays. Last year, I experienced them in Chad.
    Some traditions don’t translate, and others that don’t can merrily coexist. I moved from Switzerland to the Yukon and ended up living on the margins of First Nations villages for many years. Because our children were young, we started to celebrate Christmas, but the first winter out in the bush we discovered that the family celebrations here in Canada happened on Christmas day, while our tradition was on Christmas Eve. To this day, we maintain the Swiss tradition and it feels right. Real tree, real candles. Ox and donkey became moose and caribou.
    While living in the small remote communities, there was also a distinct advantage to having two different timings for the festivities. I was always on call for a variety of emergency services. I got to turn off my radios on the 24th, while my colleagues of the English/North American tradition took call. Then on the 25th, I took all calls while the turkeys and hams were roasting and being shared among families. That way, nobody had to miss their traditional celebrations due to an emergency response.
    It is remarkable to see how the adult children, who grew up in Canada, to this day never questioned the diversity in tradition and seem to be comfortable being outsiders in a world dominated by Santa Claus and Christmas trees that get discarded the day after we decorate ours and light the candles the first time!

    Peace to the world!



    1. I love your words on traditions “merrily co-existing!” What a great phrase. That’s exactly what has happened in my life to be sure. Great comment and addition to the post.


  2. I love Christmas! I have always loved Christmas and I get caught up in all the celebrations. I love to decorate. I love to cook. In fact, I just finished baking 4 dozen cinnamon rolls for our family. I began this tradition in Pakistan and our children and grandchildren look forward to this treat. The only food tradition from my own growing up years that I must keep is the ambrosia and fruit cake that was such an important food item my mother always prepared. My fruit cake was prepared a few weeks ago and we picked up a box of oranges straight from Florida last week. Ambrosia and fruit cake will appear on our Christmas dinner table. I love Christmas so much that in my book, THE DAY THE CHICKEN CACKLED: Reflections on a Life in Pakistan, I devote an entire chapter to various memorable Christmases. I’m sorry that feelings of loneliness, nostalgia, sadness, disgust in commercial practices, etc. infringe upon Christmas celebrations for others. Living and celebrating in the present that includes others is my way of making each Christmas the best one yet! Merry Christmas and may this be the very best Christmas for you, Robynn, your loved ones and your readers. Thank you for your weekly blog. I appreciate and enjoy them.


  3. Oh, Robynn, while I did not grow up either in Pakistan or India, your post rings sooooo true to me, on so many levels. Thank you! I wish you and your family all the best, that you will find your local community in Kansas, find the warmth and sacredness and delight there. We were, finally, able to do that. I had never before been told I was “not a Christian” until I moved to Kansas, and there I was told so more times than I care to remember. Having pursued inter-religious understanding for most of my life, it was a personally emotional stretch for me to experience the diversity of what the Christian faith offered, at least in that setting. Bless you on your journey and thank you for capturing this so eloquently.


    1. Oh Dianne, I’m sorry your Kansas time was so painful. That’s hard. Thank you for your kind wishes. Have a joy-filled Holiday wherever you’ve landed!


  4. Auntie Carol! I can’t believe I forgot about the Multan Shopping trip!!! That was a highlight! What was the name of the bakery there on that main street? We always popped in there to get elephant ear pastries, remember? Merry Christmas Auntie. I miss you! You are such a part of who I am….


  5. Robynn – you wrote this post for me! There are so many things that I didn’t learn to speak growing up – Christmas in Amreeka is one of them. But I, like you, have been learning and changing, growing and drinking tea. And I, like you, was the angel! Durro Muth (said with emphasis) kyun kay yay barri kushi etc….!


  6. Earlier you posted about being a grinch and wanting to strip down Christmas to simply the babe in the manger. I almost think being denied our traditions helps with that. For all my adult life, Christmas has not been about presents and materialism and we try to make this true for our kids as well, but I still get caught up in making Christmas too much about decorations, music and millions of cookies. These are not bad things, cultural traditions can be the spice of life and can help us worship the babe in the manger, but they can also distract from the meaning of Christmas. For all those years when I couldn’t get a real tree, couldn’t find the ingredients that I wanted to make precious family recipes and had no access to classic Christmas movies, I found that mere traditions faded in importance while my awe of the incarnation increased.

    However, I still did have a fake tree, stocking brought from America and some semblance of traditional Christmas cookies to “make my spirit bright”. Why can’t you serve chai and pallou for Christmas even though you are in Kansas? No, it won’t be the same, but plenty of people in cross-cultural marriages share two kinds of Christmas traditions with their kids, so why can’t MKs?


  7. Dearest Robynn Joy, Thanks so much for mixing together many of the ingredients that made our Christmas special. Another addition that was the shopping day in Multan. Rushing from store to store to purchase little items for each other and lunch at the chicken place. Camels, donkeys, starry nights, and crying babies; so many memories that help shape us, making the final product ‘nuttier’ along with additional spices that in my opinion has greatly improved the finished product. Love you and wishing you much joy this Christmas.


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