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Christmas in the Middle East

CMS missionaries Malcolm and Charissa Forrest serve at a church in Jordan which ministers to expats from around the world. Charissa shares what Christmas looks like in her city, and the challenge this time of year can be for international workers. 

Christmas is a strange time to be away from home, especially when you live in a country where most people don’t celebrate Christmas. Most people from Western countries, both believers and non-believers, have their own traditions and ways of celebrating that can be very tied to culture. We are now in the northern hemisphere and Christmas is cold, which makes sense of a lot of the Christmas traditions we have imported into Australia, but still feels wrong to us. To many of the expats around us, however, this is what they are used to. They have their own traditions which they try to keep going even when they are far from home. It’s interesting how we hold on to practices and traditions and how they seem to increase in significance the further we are from home and loved ones.  

“Expats often struggle at Christmas time. It’s a time when you feel like you should be with family, and you can feel very far from home.” 

Cultural acceptance of Christmas 

Over the years that we have been in Jordan, Christmas has become more prominent. There are more decorations in the shops and public spaces, and it is easier to find the things that make it feel like Christmas. While the majority of people don’t celebrate Christmas here, some more westernised people do. But it is just a fun celebration, and they don’t think about what it means.  

Many of our Muslim friends make a point of contacting us to send us good wishes for Christmas. It is important to them to honour our celebrations. We have had opportunities to share what Christmas means to us with those from the majority background, and they have been very happy to listen and interact. The Koran has a very similar story to the Bible about the birth of Jesus, so the Christmas story is very familiar. The big difference, of course, is the identity of the baby who was born on Christmas day. To us this is the most important part—God himself came to earth to be born as a human that day. We pray that one day our friends will come to recognise the deep significance of that baby in the manger and know Jesus as their Saviour. 

Cautious freedom to worship 

Local Christians are able to celebrate Christmas freely, although there are no public holidays like there are for big Muslim festivals. And there are always security concerns around these celebrations. Outside our Christmas Eve service last year, we had about 20 police and security officers. But many of the ways Christians here in Jordan celebrate would be familiar to Christians all around the world: singing carols, lighting advent candles, meeting together to share meals, giving presents and celebrating the good news that Jesus was born into our world to save us from our sins. 

The struggle of distance 

Expats often struggle at Christmas time. It can be a lonely and difficult time. At Christmas expats feel like they should be with family, and they can feel very far from home and isolated. In a way the symbols and accoutrements of Christmas against a foreign backdrop highlight that sense of dislocation and disconnection. It’s really not possible for Westerners to do Christmas the way we would at home. But it is a time when Christians can be family to one another and care for those who without family. We can share our various traditions with each other and celebrate together and make a new way of Christmas feel special and significant.  

We have had some special Christmas celebrations over the years and we’re looking forward to celebrating again this year and using the opportunity of Christmas to point people to Jesus and what he has done for us. We are planning a women’s event where we pack gifts for new mums in need. The kids are going to put on a nativity play. And we are having a couple of carol services. We’re praying that all these events encourage people to look to Jesus and be thankful for his coming into the world. 

PRAY 

Pray that expat Christians, like Malcolm and Charissa, will have opportunities to share the good news of Jesus with other foreign workers in Jordan over Christmas.