In early December, 1978, we arrived in Kenya for the first time. My wife and I and our 15 month old daughter along with another couple and their two children were there to work with the Africa Brother Church as teachers in their training school. But before we could teach, we needed to learn language, culture and church. The first month was to be an orientation to the church, which meant that we stayed in a church guest facility, with the couples sharing the common spaces.
Being somewhat aware of cultural issues, we quickly realized that Christmas in Kenya in 1978 wasn’t a major celebration–there were no carols, no sales, no parties and no snow. We agreed that our Christmas would therefore be subdued and quiet–maybe some presents but nothing big. Since we were in the guest house, it probably also mean no decorations and no tree.
As the month progressed, we were carried around from church to church, sampling the life of the ABC. We also got tired of not being in our own space, disoriented by the new culture, frustrated by the language barriers and seriously homesick. We got physically sick, we got testy with each other but pretended that everything was fine and that we were doing great–after all, we were missionaries and serving the Lord was the important thing. We could live without a North American Christmas–it was really a small sacrifice compared to what God has done.
Fortunately for us, we were working with a denomination whose leadership was very wise and very caring and they saw the state we were in even if we didn’t. Their wisdom provided us with one of my more memorable Christmases.
One day near Christmas, we were out on another of the church visits, which always involved hours in the hot car travelling over rough dirt roads to go to a place where one of us would preach and other people would say lots of stuff that we probably didn’t understand because of the language issue. At the end of the long day, we arrived back–tired, grumpy, hot and still homesick but still pretending that everything was great.
The church has assigned a prospective student to babysit us for the month. She hadn’t gone on the trip that day and when we got back, I noticed her sticking branches of a thorn tree in a bucket of sand. My curiosity overcame my fatigue and I asked her what she was doing, expecting to discover some obscure Kenyan custom that I could file away. Her answer was a wonderful gift to all of us.
She was building us a Christmas tree. The church leaders has seen our homesickness and wanted to help. In building us a Christmas tree, they gave us permission to have a better Christmas that we had been planning to allow ourselves. Those thorn tree branches formed one of the most memorably Christmas trees I have ever seen.
From that beginning, we went on to make decorations for the tree and the guest house common room. We planned a Christmas dinner with chicken as an adequate substitute for turkey–making sure to invite our babysitter. We bought presents and relaxed–even got less grumpy with each other.
We didn’t get a white Christmas, although we may have been able to see the snow capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro at some point. But we had a Christmas because of the care and concern of the church, who went out of their way to help us overcome our homesickness. Our thorn branches were the only Christmas tree on the church compound and probably one of the few in the whole town. But that tree represented the true love of Christmas–not because of the paper and popcorn decorations but because of the care and concern of people we barely knew but who showed us the love of God in a very powerful way.
That thorn branch Christmas tree has stayed with me all these years. For me, it represents the best of Christmas, not because someone gave us a tree but because several people showed a powerful love to us at a time when we really needed it. What more can you ask of Christmas celebrations?
May the peace of God be with you.