I have lived overseas now for about eight years. We have lived in three different countries, but even so, I feel quite at home here in Egypt, where we have been for four years. We have lots of friends and my life is busy with four young kids. For me, living overseas is the norm. While I love so many things about America, and I would love to live in the same state, or even town, as my family, I am perfectly content living as an expat.
But there are times when homesickness strikes. Times when you just wish you could be two places at once, or that you could travel over the ocean as easily, and cheaply, as driving from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. And one of those times is the holidays. Particularly Christmas.
The family I grew up in still gets together on Christmas despite growing from the original 7 to now 29 people. And if I sit and think about that too long, especially at the time they are actually gathering, which is usually when I am sleeping here, that can make me sad. I would love to be with my family on Christmas. But of course, I am with my family on Christmas as I celebrate with my husband and kids. What is the difference?
The last few years I have felt that Christmas has snuck up on me. We celebrate American Thanksgiving, and before I can think about it, I have to have the Christmas Advent calendar up in order to count down to the 25th. Meanwhile, here in Egypt, the official holiday of Christmas isn’t until January 7, according to the Coptic calendar. And while you can see lots of Christmas trees and wrapping paper on display at local shops, there isn’t exactly the festive atmosphere that you would find in the States. One of the biggest reasons the 25th almost comes without notice is that my girls have a regular school day and are either studying for or taking their mid-term exams. The church where we worship has begun Christmas choir practice for the girls, but their program will be on New Year’s Eve.
And so I am learning what I need to do personally to make Christmas special for me and my family in our home here in Egypt. I need people and special celebrations. If we aren’t invited to others’ celebrations, then I need to host celebrations for us (or maybe for me!) I need to bake and enjoy the time spent in the kitchen with my kids, as that is one of my favorite memories from Christmases in Pennsylvania… all the kitchen preparation beforehand. I need to listen to Christmas music and make an effort to teach my kids the carols they should know. We need to attend Christmas productions and concerts at local churches. And we need to set new traditions that make our Christmases ones that our children will one day miss.
This year I am hoping to host three Christmas teas. What is easier, and tastier, than making a bunch of Christmas sweets, and inviting others to join and indulge? One group will be teachers from my daughter’s Egyptian school, where I have begun teaching on a very part-time basis. This is an experiment and something totally new for them. Another group will be of Egyptian Christian friends. Again, a bit of an experiment, but we can celebrate the holiday together, perhaps for some of them in a new way. And the last group will be of other foreign moms like me. This will be the most naturally comfortable and possibly the tastiest as they provide some of their favorite traditional sweets.
No matter where we are, if with my husband and our children gathered together, we are home. And this home is now Egypt. It requires some adjustments and creativity, and perhaps some courage to step out and try new things. One of our Egyptian traditions is sailing on a felucca on the Nile River on Christmas morning. It is very different from the craziness that ensues when 17 grandchildren descend on my parents’ house on Christmas day. But these are special times and new memories that we make ourselves. Perhaps one day our own children will have a longing for Egypt. But we pray they will be able to celebrate wherever they are, even if not quite home.