When I was a young girl, the only sight that stood equal with the lit Christmas tree and the mounds of presents beneath it, was the barren city streets that I passed on the way to my Grandmother’s house each Christmas morning. I don’t know why those vacant parking lots, darkened storefronts, and empty sidewalks fascinated me; I guess in my young mind, I associated that barrenness with the idea that everyone was at home celebrating Christmas. I believed if that’s what life was like in a small Texas town, then certainly it must be that way for the rest of the world, right?
Many years later, in a foreign land, I discovered that wasn’t always the case.
The year our family relocated to China was an exciting one. By December we had acclimated to our surroundings and anticipated the arrival of the holiday season. We were anxious to rekindle our family traditions of trimming the tree, reading Christmas stories each night, and celebrating Advent together. For us, living in China and remembering our Savior’s birth was no different than what we did in the United States; we were simply in a different place. I assumed everyone else in China was doing the same. I was wrong.
At first I didn’t catch the signs that things were not as they should be. Difficulty in locating Christmas wrapping paper, the inability to find a turkey for Christmas lunch, and having my husband take a vacation day on the 25th did not send any signals to my brain that Christmas in Land of the Dragon would not be the same. The flashy, bright lights and extravagant Christmas tree decorations in front of the malls lured shoppers into the stores just as they did back home, so why should I think anything would be different? But as we marked off the days on the calendar, I noticed that the locals were not giddy with excitement, nor were they preparing for Christmas like the rest of the foreigners. For them, Christmas was just another day.
The reality of it all finally sunk in as we drove to a friend’s house for Christmas lunch. Traffic on the streets was as loud and congested as every other day of the year, the sidewalks were lined with people rushing about, and the workers continued sweeping up leaves and collecting trash with the same business-as-usual attitude. Seeing that truth in person, I understood that the entire world did not observe Christmas. And with that newfound knowledge, my naïve, childhood memories were shattered.
Living in a land where Christianity is neither prevalent nor encouraged, I should have known better. I was baffled, but more than anything I was saddened by the truth of it. Millions of people were missing out on the greatest gift ever given to mankind. It was a day of rejoicing, a cause for celebration! Yet here they were, oblivious to the importance or significance of the day. But they were not the first to miss out on this all-important occasion.
Reflecting on the Christmas story found in Scripture I discovered that the day Christ was born, not everyone was celebrating then either. In fact, the book of Luke says that when the shepherds arrived in Bethlehem they found only Joseph, Mary, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. No one else was around to commemorate that joyous occasion. No one else stopped what they were doing to observe the Savior’s birth. However, once the shepherds had seen Jesus they “spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” (Luke 2:17-18). It wasn’t until word got around did people become excited. Just as it was two thousand years ago, the same holds true in China today. Once the Word becomes known here and spread throughout the land, then there will be cause for celebration in December.
Every Christmas I spent in China was another sad reminder that there are still millions of people who don’t know Jesus Christ as their Savior. Although that truth evaded my mind when I arrived, that first Christmas awakened me to the reality of it and as a result, my heart will never be the same. I don’t know how long it will take, but I pray that there will be a day when my childhood memories of deserted city streets on Christmas morning will find fulfillment in China. Then my heart will rejoice because I will know that everyone there is at home celebrating the Savior.