Christmas on Beacon Hill

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Photo Credit: Suzana Alves

Just a short walk from my workplace is Beacon Hill, a historic Boston neighborhood with narrow brick streets, antique gas-lit lamps, and row houses. Beacon Hill is beautiful and quintessentially Boston. Visitors from around the world walk through the streets, finally making their way back to the red-bricked Freedom Trail that winds through the city and highlights famous places and events.

At Christmas time, Beacon Hill is a local favorite where twinkling white lights beckon and classy green wreaths with gigantic red bows adorn doorways. Beacon Hill is an expensive area of the city to live, but there is no cost to walk through it and dream. It represents a fairy tale sort of Christmas and leaves one with starry-eyed longing for a past that never was.

My childhood was lived on the other side of the world from Beacon Hill and yet, one of my favorite childhood Christmas stories was a story from Childcraft called “Christmas on Beacon Hill”. I remember only vague details of snow, lampposts casting shadows on streets, large bay windows in a Beacon Hill home, and a little boy named Benjy. In the story, I think he wore knickers.

My mom would read us the story as we lounged on couches and chairs in the southern area of Pakistan, where our reality was worlds apart from the story’s setting.

We had sunny Christmases with Poinsettia blooming bright in the winter desert. The sounds of ox carts and camels replaced any sleigh bells and instead of church bells we had the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our Christmas trees were sharp Palm fronds stuck into a clay container, homemade and heirloom ornaments hanging precariously on the dusty palms. Christmas carols would play from an old cassette tape or a turntable in the corner; songs that we knew by heart, even if our surroundings had no white winter wonderland. Even if white Christmases were only in our dreams.

On Christmas eve, carolers from the local church would come at midnight and the strong voices of people joyously belting out Joy to the World in Urdu still stays in my memory.

Despite this, when we would sit down with hot cocoa at the end of the day and listen to my mom reading, I was drawn to this faraway place called Beacon Hill, where brownstone brick houses sat side by side, and snow fell on Christmas day.

My mom’s words brought me in to a distant world, covering me like a thick blanket with longing for something I had never known. She knew about Beacon Hill and snow sparkling on sunny, winter mornings. She knew about sleigh bells and bay windows, about Christmas holly and snowmen. There must have been times when New England winter memories held deep, unspeakable longing. She passed on these treasures through reading, through the tone of her voice, through her love for place.

Some traditions are not portable, and to try to replicate them will only frustrate and cause more longing. Other traditions can be transported across oceans and cities. Mom discovered that reading is a portable tradition. Reading can bring us into worlds and places that we have never seen. We walk on streets we have never traveled; we enter doorways of houses where we have never laid our heads; we laugh with people who don’t exist. Sometimes we even grow up to live in places that we only knew in books.

It is now many years later and every day I walk close to Beacon Hill, close to those row houses with their beautiful wreaths on the doors. And at Christmas time I think about that story read to me so many years ago, and I miss that brown desert world where Poinsettia bloomed bright. I miss that home a world away where a mom from New England raised five kids to live between.

Sharing Christmas – A Guest Post

I love the essay I’m sharing today from Cindy Brandt. You’ll remember Cindy from her post a couple weeks ago The Gift of Longing to Belong. She offers another gift today in this post filled with wisdom and a reminder that the goal of Christmas, whether we are celebrating in our passport countries or overseas, is not to exit the season “ragged and unraveled”. Rather, we are called to live out the Christmas message in peace and authentic living.

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christmas ornament

Christians who are living and working overseas, either in formal missionary roles or informal tentmaker positions, are a high risk group for burnout. I suspect 96.89% of the causes for burnout may be attributed to the month of December. If the holiday season is a traditionally busy time for mainstream culture, with gift shopping, party planning, and end-of-the-year business, it is even busier for those working in the church, a typical flurry of activities surrounding the celebration of the Savior’s birth. To take things a notch more intense, those who have been sent out by the church into the mission field go into hyper drive at this time. It is the one chance out of the year to reach the lost. The stage is set, the ambiance perfect, there is no better time to share the love of Christ and share the tidings of joy. This may be the opportune time to grow your ministry. Supporters are waiting to hear the heartrending stories of Light in the midst of the unreached worlds.

It’s good. People are invited in. Lives are touched by the message of Christmas. The work is worth it. But we are exhausted. Wiped out. While consumerism drives the secular world into a frenzy with pinterest pretty decorations and glamorous bags of gifts, all God’s people are driven ragged with a similar impulse to pack the calendar full of evangelistic events, and we emerge out of the season thankful, but unraveled.

 Can it be, that in our fervor to give others the message of Peace, we have left unclaimed the very gift for ourselves?

The holidays are a time when homesickness surge, bringing a fresh pain in the hearts of even the most veteran missionaries. The loss of nostalgic traditions, foods, and smells in a foreign land is acutely felt. Those with little ones feel that stab of guilt for celebrating yet another Christmas away from the children’s doting grandparents. It is a time for self-care. A time to take a deep breath, for meditating on the coming of Christ, the very reason Christians are out in the field. A time to re-invent old traditions as the diaspora, a group of people living outside of their homeland. A time to borrow the lenses of the local culture and allow it to challenge traditional notions of the spirit of Christmas.

The truth is, much of the way Christmas is celebrated in Christendom misses the mark. Blatant consumerism has corrupted the spirit of gift giving. Corporate greeting card companies have cheapened sacred liturgies and turned seasonal greetings into sentimental fluff. Christmas games, parties, and other activities are products of a modern Western civilization, not necessarily representing the scandal of the Incarnation.

The thoughtful Christian must always unwrap the gospel from Western packaging, because that ultimate Gift incarnates Himself into every culture. My fear is, if local believers see their missionaries practicing certain westernized customs for Christmas while delivering the gospel message, the association becomes inextricably linked and they internalize the idea: to be Christian, one must celebrate Christmas the Western Way.

It is a special season for many missionaries, both in personal nostalgia and in the perceived opportunities for ministry. But there needn’t be such a sense of urgency resulting in jam-packed, non stop activities. December doesn’t have to turn into a blur of back to back events. The work of the Spirit is not rushed, but moves steadily through the rhythm of the entire year.

 Persistent love trumps harried programs.

Invite local friends to participate in your family traditions because you care for them, not because they are ministry objects. Open your home to others not for potential newsletter fodder, but because you need friends at this time of the year. Share your customs with them as just that, customs from your own culture, not some hyper-spiritualized practice. Learn the local flavor of Christmas and incorporate some ideas for your family next Christmas. Laugh at the wonder of local children when you offer a gift or a Christmas cookie. Leave space to lament over Christmases left behind in your home country, and find solace in the quirky traditions in this new life. Tell a local friend you are sad and homesick, but that you’re glad you got a chance to meet them.

In this way, Christmas is shared, not imposed upon. The gospel isn’t preached, but lived.

When There is No Other Hand

English: Fiddler On The Roof Français : Un Vio...

Although I’ve not seen it in years, Fiddler on the Roof is one of my favorite shows/movies. I’ve watched the movie numerous times and seen the performance live as a musical theatre production at least twice.

The scenes that have found place in my memory are what I call the “other hand scenes”. These are scenes where Tevya, a hardworking, ebullient, loving father and husband is talking to himself and to God. He is trying to make sense of the changing world around him and his value of tradition, yet also trying to figure out where tradition is not merely tradition but something far greater, something that cannot be compromised. The ‘other hand’ scenes are great pictures of a dialogue between a man fully comfortable communicating with his God.

We learn early on the value of tradition for Tevya:

“But in our little village of Anatevka, every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!”

“Because of our traditions, we have kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer-shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”

“Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!”

The ‘other hand’ scenes come as Tevya watches his daughters, one by one, fall in love and want to marry. First his challenge is that his oldest daughter wants to marry a poor tailor, but ‘on the other hand he’s an honest hard worker’. We watch him process and ultimately compromise tradition, giving his blessing on the marriage. We see a similar pattern with his second daughter and feel his pain as she heads off on a train to Siberia to be with the man she loves.

But there comes a point where Tevya won’t compromise. Where in his own words “there is no other hand”; where it’s less about tradition and more about bottom-line belief.

I think a lot about this, about compromise, about what I am and am not willing to compromise. Communicating across cultural boundaries is a lot about give and take, a lot about compromise, a lot about negotiation. And when we communicate across truth claims and faith differences, make no mistake — we are communicating across cultural differences, we are communicating across boundaries.

We live in an age where many are quick to criticize dogmatic truth claims. One of our friends who does a lot with interfaith dialogue says that there are times when you shake your head in disbelief because those who get together for interfaith dialogue water down their truth claims so much that they all sound the same.

That’s not dialogue. That’s monologue

When a Christian says that it doesn’t matter if Jesus is an allegory, and a Muslim says that the creed is unimportant then it’s not an interfaith dialogue – both have given up essential elements of their faith.

There are other times where people clearly and graciously state their claims, and, even if it bothers you, they won’t back down. There is no other hand. They will listen, and ask questions, and have genuine interest, but their faith compels them to hold fast to certain truth.

When it comes to tradition, belief, and truth claims I feel a lot like Tevya. I have this running dialogue with God, trying to sort out where and when I am willing to compromise and when I realize there is no other hand. Because if I bend that far, I’ll break.

“On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend that far, I’ll break. On the other hand… No. There is no other hand.”

What about you? Have you struggled to work through faith, what you will compromise, and what you won’t? I invite you to join the conversation – we need your voice.

No Wonder We Have Issues!

No Wonder we have issues! –a superficial exploration of this woman and her obsession with food! By Robynn

What’s with women and food?

crepes, foodWomen have a strange relationship with food. Maybe it’s not just women. Maybe
men have an odd entanglement with food too. But certainly women do. Traditionally men were the ones that killed the food and brought it home. And it seems to me that women have been in the kitchen ever since preparing it.

Is it any wonder that we have issues with food? Food is such a complicated thing.

We need food to survive. We need the nourishment that comes from the nutrients. We need the energy that comes from the calories.

In the west food is everywhere.  Advertisers appeal to our base appetites and instincts. They convince us that we deserve the most delectable treats. We’re worth it! We’re entitled to the tastiest morsels, the fanciest of feasts.  Food is sensual and supposedly satisfying.

And yet at the same time we’re served up such mixed messages.

The media tells us to diet, to become skinny, to lose weight. We’re trained to fixate on food and we’re taught to obsess on size. Supposedly we can have our cake and eat it too!

The plot and the waistline thicken when we consider all the roles food plays.

Food is a central part of celebration.

(Consider the Christmas dinner or the food at Eid; the sweets for Holi and the feast at Thanksgiving!) Food is also a reward. Side dishes of consolation are served up as comfort. Friends get together for meals. It’s part of our hospitality and included in our invitations. “Come over for dessert!”  Food is the subject of countless studies. (Is breakfast the most important meal of the day? What is the role of the family dinner in our children’s state assessment scores? ) Food and it’s production have become highly political subjects as well. High Fructose Corn Syrup sneaks into most things we eat. There are lobbyists in Washington making sure that doesn’t change! Meanwhile down the street Mrs Obama is planting a garden and encouraging us to eat better, more of this, less of that.

Food is nostalgia.

It’s childhood. It’s memories. For those of us who’ve been other places and come to love other foods it represents a deeper type of longing for a place faraway.

Boarding school further complicated my food issues. Food meant status (those who had special imported treats and those who didn’t). Food meant love and connection with home. Sharing our “feastings” was a way to share our families and the love of our families. Reunions always meant food. Mom cooked all of our favourites for each reunion. It was her way of welcoming us home. It was one of the languages she used to say, I missed you so very much. Pending separations were counted down with food. Three more days at home meant three more home cooked meals and another opportunity for mom to lavish love in three more meals of our favourites. The train trip back up to school included shoe boxes lined with wax paper and filled with food!

That travel food was prepared with tears and consumed by little brave travelers trying not to drench cinnamon buns and elephant ear pastries with more tears.

And yet now food becomes practical, and real and down to earth every day. I have to think about it. I have to plan for it. I have to go get it. I push my cart through the shop, load it up, empty it out at the check out, bag it, load it into the car, unload it into the house, put it away and then bring it out again, cut it, chop it, stir it, cook it and serve it!

Food is universal.

Everywhere, every day, we wake up and we think about food. This is true for the rich and for the poor; for the full and for the hungry.

There are those who are sick because of food and the power it wields. Those who eat too little or eat too much. Those trying to drown their souls in their stomaches. Those trying to hold on to a bit of control in a world wild with chaos.

But in a way I think I’m sick with food too. As my metabolism slows and the emotions of yesteryear begin to simmer up inside food somehow grounds me….or at least it pretends too. I realize my reasons for eating are as complex as the personality I’ve been given or the story I’ve been living.

I find food too oppressive. I’m weary of the obsession. I try not to weigh my emotions or my convictions about food as I stand on the scale, naked, vulnerable, weary.

I tried to give it all up for Lent….not food itself…but the longing and love of food. It’s not working.

But today, on International Day of the Woman, I will put aside the obsession and celebrate – celebrate that at the very least food does serve to connect me with women across the globe. Food ties our stories and struggles together. binds us tight with spices and tastes. And that I can and will celebrate.

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!

Canadian Thanksgiving & Apple Picking!

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving to all the Canadian Readers of Communicating Across Boundaries! Thanks for tuning in to CAB so regularly and may you have an amazing day of celebration and gratitude.

I have a personal connection with this holiday as for many years we celebrated it with my Canadian sister-in-law. With her move to Oxford with my brother we are wistfully reminiscent of their home and the yearly celebration of not one, but two thanksgiving holidays. Today they are celebrating in Oxford at overseas student housing with a group of friends from all over the world, including  our youngest son.

Other readers – culturally do you celebrate a day dedicated to giving thanks? If so would love to hear about it in the comment section. 

Today is also Columbus day in the United States and gives us a holiday. We are going apple picking — enjoying crisp fall weather, amazing colors of gold, burnt orange, and red, and New England’s famous cider donuts. See Fall in New England: Pumpkins, Apples, Mums and More for a look at what’s in store for us.

It’s these days that hold tradition at its best that so satisfy. They are all the more precious because tomorrow will bring about daily routine and with it the normal stress of life. But these moments of respite are to be celebrated and enjoyed to their fullest.

The best people in all ages keep classic traditions alive – George Santayana (adapted)

The Art of Dyeing Easter Eggs

Every year we dye Easter eggs. No matter how many or few kids we have at home, we always do this. In a word, it’s “Tradition!”. In many ways it’s like making Christmas cookies, it never gets old. So caught up are we in the creative process that time stands still. So on Good Friday after a time of contemplation and wonder we came home to home-made soup and fresh bread followed by the art of dyeing Easter eggs.

It is an amazing process of watching something beautiful emerge from a plain, white, hard-boiled egg. Enjoy this trip through our process!