Christmas: tradition, atmosphere, and the human spirit

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You may already be aware that I moved abroad weeks after graduating from college to Taiwan, a country where Chinese New year, not Christmas, is the time of year everyone culturally looks forward to for vacation, travel, and family. As a result, in the last 6 years, being home in America for Christmas has only happened once.

This year, I’m home. The tables have been turned, however, because my younger sister who has relocated to Los Angeles, California, is not. I am now experiencing what she experienced for several Christmases before I came home for one: beaming her in via the modern technology of facetime so she can be in the room with us while we open gifts, converse, listen to Christmas music, etc.,.

In Taiwan, I, along with my other Christmas-celebrating friends, have grown used to creating Christmas, taking all of our learned Christmas customs from our various family backgrounds and, in a combined effort, generating the Christmas spirit. We decorate, bake cookies, drink Christmas beverages, throw parties, go caroling, plan events for the church community. On top of all the festivities, we’re teaching our Taiwanese English students all about the joys of the holiday and celebrating it at school with co-workers through parties and various school-wide events. It’s been a lot of work over the years but always rewarding; then at the end of it all, we disappear to tap into modern technology by ourselves and connect with our own family and friends in their respective timezones.

That is the Christmas I know. Anyone who has lived for a time overseas, I’m sure, can relate. In a sense, celebrating Christmas this way for so many years has taught me a few things about this beloved and festive holiday, lessons that have come naturally and some not so easily.

Tradition. It seems all people – even nontraditional types, need tradition, no matter how trivially small or ceremoniously grand. If you’ve seen the movie Inception (a brilliant film you need to drop everything and watch right now if you haven’t already), you would be familiar with the idea of a totem, an individual’s grip on reality represented by some physical object as he or she navigates the precarious and unpredictable subconscious of the dream world.

The lesson here is that we all need a totem; and many times, a holiday like Christmas can provide that stability. The thing to remember, though, is that what provides stability can and will change, including traditions. Tradition can be a source of comfort, but tradition itself is not immune to the fluidity and dynamism of life as we know it. 

I learned this lesson the hard way. Now I understand that I shouldn’t be afraid of doing new things for Christmas, that changed plans and different people doesn’t mean the holiday is ruined. In fact, revisiting and remaking old traditions and new ones is what keeps any holiday alive. Yes, change can hurt; but the cliche is true: no pain, no gain. Try something completely new for Christmas and let me know what happens.

Atmosphere. Atmosphere is generated. A charismatic person is capable of carrying his or own atmosphere and spreading it to other people. My favorite example of this can be found in one the earliest Coke commercials (this one was produced before the hashtag craze):

This is how the atmosphere of Christmas is generated. Someone dresses up in a Santa suit and gives away free hugs and candy canes. A group of people go from door to door singing Christmas carols. Someone decides to bake Christmas cookies for all their neighbors. A generous employee brings presents for everyone at work. An airline decides to make their passengers’ wishes come true.

Buddy the Elf taught me everything I need to understand the atmosphere of Christmas in these 3 rules: 1) Treat everyday like Christmas. 2) There’s room for everyone on the nice list. 3) The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.

Rule #1 is essential. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of a baby that changed everything for all of us. God came down to the earth in a way everyone can relate to: as a baby. Babies represent new beginnings, new life, rebirth, life as the result of a beautiful biological union. This is what we can celebrate in our lives every day of the year.

The human spirit. Finally, holidays like Christmas bring out the resilience in all of us, if we let it. People like to rally around beauty and inspiration. Christmas gives us just that. Have you ever sang “Silent Night” or “O Holy Night” with a group of people acapella by candlelight? Have you ever witnessed a surprise marriage proposal? Have you ever gathered around with a group of strangers to pray for a person or a place none of you really know? The human spirit is powerful, and Christmastime is a chance for all of us to experience how it brings us together. If we let it.

I’ll be the first to admit that there have been times I’ve gotten in the way of Christmas. And it’s never a pretty feeling once the moment has passed. This year, even though the last 6 months have already been littered with the not-so pleasant unexpected and unplanned, I have resolved to not get in the way. So I’ve gone through the motions, I went to the parties, I participated in the festivities; and the whole time I tried not to get in the way. And I had a good time, despite whatever it was I was feeling that made me want to get in the way. 

Christmas is not about me. It’s about the hope of redemption and peace that all of us can have here on earth.

So Merry Christmas! And may the tradition and atmosphere and spirit of the season carry you and your loved ones away to the place where we can experience peace on earth. 

 

 

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CHARGE! into 2015 (Dec/Jan Update)

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The holidays have come and gone, book marking the end of yet another year. 2015 is officially upon us.

I’m keeping my New Year’s Resolutions simple this year, since I want to actually accomplish them: learn how to drive a stick and donate my hair to Locks of Love. It’s going to happen – and will happen in America! Stay tuned for details about my next visit home THIS SUMMER! (You can read more of my thoughts on 2014 in my blog post “2014 in 365 words.”)

Meanwhile, here’s a verbal and illustrated update about recent happenings these past several weeks. It’s been simultaneously both tumultuous and rewarding. 

super short chapter one: unconventional housewarming methods

I thoroughly warmed my house during the holidays. Due to the size of my new place, I decided against a house warming bash and hosted smaller group events instead.

SMALLER GROUP EVENT #1: The final small group of the church semester was a Christmas scavenger hunt through Ximen that ended at my house with hot tea and Christmas pancakes!

SMALLER GROUP EVENT #1: The final small group meeting of the church semester was a Christmas scavenger hunt through Ximen that ended at my house with hot tea and Christmas pancakes!

Then, in the spirit of the season, I hosted a festive “book club” gathering; a group of us had read the book Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, so I killed two birds with one stone by making our discussion a holiday-themed gathering. (Can you tell it was an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party?) This was SMALLER GROUP EVENT #2.

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SMALLER GROUP EVENT #3 happened on Christmas morning. I invited all my former roommates who happened to be in Taiwan (no joke, lol) over for breakfast. I woke up at 6am and started preparing our feast. It was a wonderful and fantastic reunion as we “pretended” to be living together again.

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Those were the holidays gatherings at my house! It’s been officially warmed.

super short chapter two: a christmas education and other christmas festivities

Since I didn’t go home for the holidays this year, I was actually around to teach my little kindergarteners a Christmas song & dance for the Christmas show! I did the song “Here Comes Santa” with my T2 class. They ROCKED it.

My friend Eli also invited me to the ORTV Christmas Show. (ORTV is the biggest Christian broadcasting company here in Taiwan. They do radio, TV, magazines, and a plethora of other activities and events that have literally been teaching the people of Taiwan English and spreading the Gospel in this country since 1960.) It was quite the production, this being my first time to see their Christmas show (I actually have a quite a few friends who work for ORTV, which stands for Overseas Radio & Television). I was impressed how Santa Claus and his Reindeer were not mentioned even ONCE and how directly they tied in the Gospel to every part of the performance. This is significant because of how unchurched Taiwan is; nobody walked away from that show without the impression that Jesus is a part of the meaning of Christmas. 

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Me & Eli. Eli got us the tickets for the show!

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And of course we did our Aroma Christmas Service at church. I designed the fliers for them, and took care of some other details like a Christmas video and special Christmas contact cards.

Christmas Service

It was a beautiful gathering with quite a few other people who are part of the Aroma community but don’t normally attend church on Sunday. The children even did a story-telling and prayed a Christmas blessing for everyone. They were adorable. The service ended with the traditional candle-lit singing of “Holy Night.”

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super short chapter three: ushering in 2015

I had to work on Christmas Day for the first time ever in my English-teaching career here in Taiwan. (The school I previously worked at gave teachers Christmas day off.)  I completely compensated for this fact by

  • baking Christmas cookies and feeding them to my students and co-teachers, 
  • bringing in Christmas coloring sheets,
  • dancing and singing all the Christmas music that was the school’s Christmas CD,
  • telling my students the Christmas story through an advent calendar.

And there were some surprises for me as well. A student’s mom grows her own ginger and brought in a HUGE bag of it for the teachers. I came away with quite the supply of fresh ginger! Another student’s mom bought Japanese-style cheesecakes for all the teachers. Wow! Thank YOU! It was a Merry Christmas at school!

I had the day after christmas off. So, feeling inspired by various events and recent happenings during the Holiday season, I wrote this: “Twas the Day After Christmas.” Ironically, due to Taiwan’s Special Work Days, I had to go into work the next day, a Saturday.

All of Taiwan got a 4 day weekend for New Year’s since New Year’s Day fell on a Thursday. That’s why I went in to work on Saturday: to pay for my Friday off. I celebrated New Year’s with a small group of friends for a change; the 6 of us had dinner and drinks and watched the Taipei 101 fireworks from a field near their house.

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And then, on the first day of 2015, I went hiking with a big group of people.

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 On the second of 2015 (the day off I had paid for by working on the previous Saturday), I soaked in the hot springs and swam in the river of Wulai, one of my favorite places here in Taiwan and enjoyed the scenery with my friend Lauren, my Hump Day (Wednesdays) lunch date.

On the 3rd day of 2015, I went on another hike.

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The next day was Sunday, which for me is church day, not a play day. But that was fine; I had just played for 3 straight days to celebrate the opening of 2015! It was a fantastic start.

super short chapter four: the current situation

In between all of this playing, which is really fun to share with all of you, there have been other developments as well. I will briefly summarize them below in 3 bullet points.

  •  The Mission. (1) A new semester of small groups of started at the Aroma, and I am no longer a leader! This is exciting because I have felt for a very long time that it was time for me to step down and watch Taiwanese people become drivers of the spiritual growth of the community. I still attend the Wednesday night small group and help translate. (2) The Children’s Church Ministry is officially using Teach Us the Bible curriculum, and it’s very exciting for both students and teachers! (3) The Junior High Program has only one class left this month, and then won’t start up again until March. After a meeting with my pastor and our supporting local teachers, the class we do is going to undergo some exciting changes that will continue to advance the Kingdom in this public junior high school!
  • The Community. At the very beginning of my time here, it was the natural thing to do to make friends with all the Taiwanese people I met; we had no choice but to reach out since our community was still in the growing stages. Over time, it’s been easier to not reach out and make friends, especially when the community feels like it keeps growing on its own more and more everyday. Recently, however, I’ve been blessed with new friends and a reunion with one I have known for 5 years: my very first language exchange partner Dulcie. I spent an afternoon with her and Jessica catching up and sharing new experiences.
  • The Person. I have officially made some new goals for myself that will take me the next few years to accomplish. I feel called to continue doing ministry here for the time being, but I know longer feel called to a life of work and ministry, but to a life of school and ministry. This means that as I am serving at the Aroma, I will be pursuing serious study in Chinese and then my Master’s degree here in Taiwan. BIG CHANGE! I know! This is why I am moving into a more support-sustained lifestyle. I trust God will provide all I need!  If you are interested in supporting, below is all the information you need to know how. Also, feel free to contact me directly via email: crowleyvictoria@gmail.com

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THANK YOU FOR READING THIS UPDATE! 🙂

Twas the Day After Christmas

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My own studio apartment to decorate, finding real potted Christmas trees at the grocery store, kindergarten Christmas program at school, Christmas pancakes for my small group, a weekend full of Christmas bustle at church, planning Aroma’s first “children’s Christmas program”, a Christmas-themed book club-like gathering, Christmas Eve treats, Christmas movies, Christmas Day, working on Christmas day for the first in Taiwan (!!!), making new Christmas playlists. Feeling a little more nostalgic since I got to be home for Christmas last year. Christmas can be a chaotic time of the year for a lot of people. 

Living in Taiwan has taught me that things like Christmas are truly a matter of the heart – and truth. Holidays are external things, but we must choose to let the true meaning of times like this to ignite our Christmas Spirit, especially when the world around you doesn’t feel like Christmas at all.

So I “re-wrote” a classic Christmas poem to express and describe my the feelings I experienced about Christmas this year, specifially here in Taiwan. Enjoy.

Twas the Day After Christmas, when all through the house
All the lights were still blinking, none of them put out.
The stockings still hung, and evergreen infused the air,
Pieces of gift wrap evidenced that St. Nicholas had been there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While they clutched their new toys and dreamed of what was ahead.
And family in America, and I in Taiwan
Were settled in front of screens to get our Xmas chat on

When out in the world people were scattered
Spreading Christmas cheer and getting fatter
I sat in my bed listening to the voices
That described my family’s Christmas gift choices

Outside on Taipei City the rain fell
Where the Christmas holiday was hard to tell
Christmas day had certainly appeared
But people don’t pay much attention to that here

Bus drivers, driving across the city precariously quick
Donned Santa hats to dress up as St. Nick
And store fronts put up trees and lights
So people could stroll about enjoying the sights:

Red and green and pink and purple
Festive hats glued to puppies and turtles
Christmas shows and Christmas songs
Were thrown and played to please the throngs
Ribbons and glitter manipulated for the season
Pictures were taken in front of fake trees for no apparent reason
Figures of reindeers, Santa and fake snow
All danced together in a synthetic holiday glow

I sat on my bed under the covers
Listening to the voices of my sister, father, and mother
My window of technology had been blurred
And for the poor video connection there was no cure

And so twas the day after Christmas, when I sat in my house
All the lights were still blinking, none of them put out
I wished my family a Merry Christmas and laid back down in bed
Visions of past holiday festivities danced in my head

And then I thought how the story of Christmas is indeed truly sad
The savior, a king is to be born, by a virgin to be had
When in accordance with Roman decree an inconvenient and long journey suddenly lies ahead
Upon reaching the destination, the expecting mother doesn’t even get a bed

Though a beautiful and mysterious star hangs in the sky to announce the baby king’s arrival
Only astrologers from a far away land follow the sign and unknowingly bring good news to a rival
This leads to the execution of babes all over the land
Because King Herod will not be replaced by an unknown man

But through the hardships that faced Joseph and Mary
The Angel Gabriel shone his golden light and bade them not to be wary
God in heaven, the father of the baby, could be trusted
He would protect them, the courage to believe they must muster

Choruses of angels singing of the Savior’s birth
Astrologers from the East gifting a child with frankincense, incense, and myrrh
An Israelite man raising a Son that would not carry on his line
All of this proving the prophet’s words, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”

And so I sat there, surrounded by a sea of modern Christmas noise
Another December 25th had come and gone, more money had been spent, children had more toys
But the true meaning of Christmas rose above all this
The meaning that all of the lights and music and presents so often miss

Thank you, Father in Heaven, that your Son was born
Thank you that He died so that the dividing curtain was torn
Thank you for the miracle of life that is every birth
And the resurrection that has made this miracle possibly for everyone here on earth.

Merry Christmas!

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16

Hello, 2013!

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Happy New Year to all my friends and family, near and abroad! I trust that all of you had a wonderful  holiday season with the people closest to you, putting up and decorating Christmas trees, wrapping presents and stuffing stockings, planning parties and preparing meals, stringing lights and hanging mistletoe. Christmas has always been my favorite time of the year. It still is, although for the last 4 years it has looked extremely different all around me. In fact every year the celebration has been a completely different nontraditional Christmas.

Here’s a mini visual of my 2012 Christmas season:

Between all the parties, Christmas-caroling, and service preparation, there was hardly time to breathe. But alas, on Christmas day I found myself with the people closest to me, celebrating my favorite day of the year; and somehow, on that day, all was at peace.

All of you, near and far, were in my thoughts this Christmas season. I found myself quite astounded when I realized this was Christmas #4 away from home. I actually do plan on being home for Christmas 2013. Four Christmases ago, the lines “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams” became a reality in my life, and I’ve decided its time to change that.

And now for 2013.

New Year’s Eve was a Monday night, and what do we always do on Monday night? Play ultimate frisbee. So that’s what we did, followed by a barbecue up on the roof of my apartment, where we ushered in the new year, food and drinks in hand, watching the Taipei 101 fireworks display with everybody else up on the roof.

And after it was all over, life went on. 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my dear ones. I think of all of you often.

HANGING IN THE BALANCE… between Christmas Day and the New Year

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While we all hang here together, I thought I would share some of my Christmas video favorites from YouTube. I don’t have much time to simply browse these kinds of things these days, so I largely depend of what my friends post around facebook. I come across some good stuff! Here’s a few to enjoy as we bask in the after glow of Christmas and anticipate what is to come in 2012.

Went to an ugly sweater party this year, so this just felt appropriate.  

Classic in so many of the non-cheesy and non-stereotypical ways.

And finally, what our ministry did here for Christmas Eve. It is ALWAYS a privilege to share Christmas with the people here. People with no established or rooted Christmas tradition themselves seemed to be moved every time. Never gets old, NEVER.

Just in time for the holidays!

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I did it AGAIN. I somehow survived another holiday season by working straight through it and planning events and other things with every other spare moment of my time. On my own personal calendar, my holiday season starts on Thanksgiving Day, an American holiday practically foreign to the culture here and is about to wrap up with the start of the New Year. So before 2012 begins, here’s a run down of the last month of 2011. 

November 24. We went to a restaurant called Grandma Nittis that serves a traditional Thanksgiving meal in ONE course. Can you imagine? It was a good time with good food and good friends. This is a literal snap shot of my family here in Taiwan. I am very thankful for every one of these faces. The two women to the right of me in the picture are my roommates. My “thankful” went out to them when we went around the table. I am extremely thankful the community I’m a part of here has become my family.

November 26. As a kick off to the holiday season, I hosted a holiday dessert and movie night at my place called Just in time for the Holidays! I invited a bunch of people, and a crowd of faces filled the living room, filling their stomachs with cranberry sauce, granola, sweet potato dip, croissants, beko (a Filipino coconut milk rice cake), chocolate-covered raisins, chocolate-covered pomegranates, grapes and cheese, and my new favorite holiday drink called Wassail. Afterwards, EVERYONE headed out into Ximen to catch the movie The Help. (We also put up our Christmas tree that day!)

December 3. What a better time for fancy birthday parties than the holidays? My precious Taiwanese friend Mark took this picture of all of us on the dance floor at his Fancy Birthday Party. Notice all of our fancy clothes.

December 10. BigByte, the English cram school where a few of us work, had the company’s annual Christmas dinner at the Regent Hotel this year. It was an excellent and festive time of AWESOME FOOD (the buffet at this place is supposed to be famous and is really expensive), fun prizes, and co-workers. I really enjoy the people I work with, so it was a pretty fabulous way to celebrate Christmas with all of them. One of my co-teachers won the MacBook Air our CEO decided to give away as the big gift. My team leader Chris won the “Manager’s Special,” aka a bike. Just for fun, a few of us females posed with Santa after dinner.

December 15. Celebrating birthdays is kind of a big part of the culture of my community here. December 15 happens to be the birthday of Michael (the super-surprised looking one in the middle), who just joined the team this last August. We successfully and thoroughly kicked him in the face with a two-tier surprise party that Thursday night. It was a blast and a complete and total surprise for him.

December 24. We had the greatest Christmas Eve event in Ximen Ding EVER. It was an incredible night of friends and coffee and cookies and Christmas cards and music and drama and Jesus. Over 80 people had come in and out of the doors by the time the night was over. We planned the event in two weeks with every spare moment of our team that wasn’t in the classroom, and it was held in our new coffee shop building. Christmas really has no place in the tradition of this culture, and that night reminded all of us all over again how important it is to bring the good news of Christmas to these people who need to know Jesus. So many hearts were moved and warmed by God’s love that night.

December 25. MERRY CHRISTMAS! I spent the morning baking carrot cake and skyping my family. We then headed over to the other apartment to eat a Christmas feast of hefty omelets, chocolate, cinnamon rolls, pumpkin pull-apart bread, carrot cake, more chocolate and home-made eggnog. Gifts were exchanged, Secret Santas were revealed, and the day ended with an “Ugly Sweater Party” and White Elephant gift exchange put on by some dear friends at their place.  That concluded my 2011 Taiwan Christmas on a note of international and festive merriment.

THERE YOU HAVE IT. Thanksgiving and Christmas 2011. Every year is different, and I think I’ve accepted that. Living abroad means you accept a more diverse lifestyle, and for every ache for the familiar, I’m awarded with love and friendship from a new and surprising source. After all, Christmas isn’t a place, a season, a food or event. Ever year, Christmas is always celebrated in our hearts. And that is exactly where all of you still are: in my heart. 

Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year! Here’s to the craziest, wildest, most miraculous and adventurous 2012 yet.