It was Christmas morning in 1993, and there was a buzz in the air of our apartment. This was our first year in Avigliana, Italy, our first Christmas without our close-knit family and loving church members. They were all back in Pennsylvania. We’d left back in March with three children under the age of 6. Some of the “soreness” of leaving had healed, but the holiday season seemed to pick at those tender spots in our hearts.
Thankfully, for that first Christmas, our family came for a visit. Our children showed off their baby Italian and excitedly introduced them to their new home, new church, and new neighborhood friends. For a moment, our worlds didn’t seem so strangely fractured. But of course, after a while, our family went home and we stayed behind.
This first Christmas helped us to realize that living life in another culture required sacrifices and, at the same time, offered new opportunities. We learned that it’s okay to acknowledge the losses we experienced, to verbalize that, yes, we’re sad that we can’t go sledding with all the cousins or crack nuts with Grampa’s nutcracker. It’s sad that we wouldn’t get to taste Gramma’s sugar cookies or cranberry ice.
And yet, we had an opportunity to celebrate new traditions. Yes, it would take some more effort to plan for holidays overseas, but we could do it. We did our best to make an amalgamation of traditions from our own families, even incorporating some from our new Italian home. Every few years, we planned special trips away. Our favorite trip was to Salzburg, Austria, a 10-hour drive through snowy mountains. That Christmas, we went ice-skating, enjoyed a kilometer-long toboggan run, took a ride in a horse-drawn sleigh with jingle bells, and sang carols in the same chapel where “Silent Night” was written.
All told, we spent nine Christmases in Europe. During those years, God gave us perspective on our losses and our gains. And there were gains. Our supporters showered us with love through their Christmas cards; they encouraged us with their kind words and their extra money for gifts. They wanted us to see them as part of our family, too. And we did! We also felt much love from the dear Italian people in our apartment building. Our community grew and grew as we shared plates of cookies or bowls of caramel corn or homemade Christmas decorations. These friends became like family.
And what surprising joy we felt in 1996, our third Christmas in Italy. We stood hand-in-hand in a basement of a nearby hotel and sang “Astro del Ciel” (Silent Night) with 15 Italian believers in our newly established church. This is how we celebrated Christmas now. Though we missed our family back home, we enjoyed a new spiritual family in our new earthly home.