A Family Advent Countdown: 25 Days of Christmas

Advent: “the arrival of a notable person, thing or event” according to the Google Dictionary. It’s the anticipation of the birthday celebration of Jesus that we specifically look forward to in December. I have always enjoyed counting down the days to Christmas! No matter how old I get, I believe I will always look forward to this part of the celebration.

But when you aren’t in your home country, Christmas may look very different than what you are used to. The normal decorations may not be available. New traditions may emerge depending upon what you have available in your new country and culture. For us, in Uganda, often times families would decorate with balloons and maybe a large branch. But mostly each family did not possess a full range of ornaments and a fake tree to pull out of storage each year.

For our family, advent meant two things. First, out came the advent candle wreath with three purple candles, one pink candle and a large while pillar candle in the center; and second, out came the wall calendar with a pouch for each day to count down holding a piece of the nativity scene. The nativity scene would be built one by one each day until finally on the last day, baby Jesus would be revealed and placed in the manger by use of velcro. Over the years, it became a bit worn and so last year I refurbished it a bit. These two things went with us when we moved to Uganda back in 2010. It was one of the few “normal” things we possessed for our Christmas celebration.

A friend and missionary colleague who currently serves in Uganda, Kari Segner, shared her creative ways that their family counted down by using activities and fun things to do. That set me to thinking of various things to do each day as part of the advent countdown. Depending upon your country of service, you may or may not have the same things available for crafts and activities. But being creative with what you have is part of the fun! Using some of my friend’s ideas as well as my own, I have created a Family Advent Countdown that I will share with you here. Each day is based in a scripture chosen by Kari and then an activity for the entire family.

  1. Read Luke 1:26-28. Put up the Christmas tree. If you don’t have one, improvise with what you have. Create a tree on the wall with colored paper or find some branches. Diffuse Evergreen essential oil to fill your house with the smells of Christmas. (24 days left until Christmas)
  2. Read Luke 1:29-33. Make a Christmas card to send in the mail to a loved one. Use whatever materials might be available to you. Get creative with cutting out magazine lettering or drawing your own designs. If you mail them now, there is still time for them to arrive in time for Christmas. (23 days left until Christmas)
  3. Read John 14:6. Jesus is the Way! Create a maze by hand on paper to trace the way or make a life-size maze for the family to find their way using boxes or furniture and draping blankets. Make it fun! Perhaps you each take turns making one for others to try. (22 days left until Christmas)
  4. Read Luke 1:34-38. Just as the angel visited Mary to announce that the Holy Spirit would come, add some decorations to the tree that might remind you of the angel or the Holy Spirit. If you don’t have any, you could look for the shape of a dove or an angel to decorate and hang. Perhaps you have glitter that could be added to the angel or dove as well. Again, be creative! (21 days left until Christmas)
  5. Read Matthew 1:18-19. To celebrate that baby Jesus is coming, have a dance party to Christmas music! Find a fun stream on your device to share and enjoy! (20 days left until Christmas)
  6. Read John 14:6. Jesus is the Truth. Play a game as a family where you have to give three statements about yourself but one of them is false. Have fun guessing one another’s truths and falsehoods. You might be surprised what you learn about each other! (19 days left until Christmas)
  7. Read Matthew 1:20-21. Watch a Christmas movie such as “The Polar Express” and eat popcorn together. (18 days left until Christmas)
  8. Read Matthew 1:22-23. Make snowflakes out of white paper and hang them in the windows. If you have silver glitter, it might be fun to add that as well. Again, be creative. Crumple up the left over paper and have a pretend snow ball fight! (17 days left until Christmas)
  9. Read John 8:12. Jesus is the Light of the World. Darken a room and play a version of hide-and-seek where the one seeking has a flashlight. Make your own version of the game rules! (16 days left until Christmas)
  10. Read Luke 2:1-5. Create a scavenger hunt, sending everyone on a journey. Use items that are common and easy to find in your cultural context. It might be in the yard or around the house. End the scavenger hunt with some special family treat that you enjoy together like hot cocoa or surprise candy canes that you brought from home. (15 days left until Christmas)
  11. Read Luke 2:6-7. Watch “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” or another short movie that portrays the Christmas story. End with a family discussion where each one shares several things they are thankful for. (14 days left until Christmas)
  12. Read John 10:1-18. Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Spend some time talking about Jesus as our Good Shepherd. Then call a family member such as the grandparents together and wish them a Merry Christmas early. (13 days left until Christmas)
  13. Read Luke 2:8-12. If you have a nativity scene, bring it out now and place it in a prominent place in your home. If you didn’t bring one with you, be sure to prepare for this by finding a locally made one or make your own. You can find ideas online to make a paper one or one from wood yourself. (12 days left until Christmas)
  14. Read Revelation 5:5. Jesus is the Lion of Judah. Make a large paper lion – remember this is just for fun, so it doesn’t have to be perfect – and play “Pin the tail on the lion” using a blindfold. (11 days left until Christmas)
  15. Read Luke 2:13-15. Play a game of “Gossip” where you whisper something in one person’s ear, then they pass it on by whispering in the next person’s ear, and so on until the final person must say out loud what they think they heard. (10 days left until Christmas)
  16. Read Job 19:25. Jesus is our Redeemer. Play a game of “Jailbreak.” Ask the children to each find a personal object that they cherish and bring it to put in a box. The box is the “jail.” In advance (or while they are searching for their personal object) be sure to hide coins of varying values around the room. Then give them time to find all of the coins. Once they have their money, ask them to either buy back their treasured item or choose to keep the money instead. Explain that they can ‘redeem’ their treasured object by buying it back with their coins. In similar fashion, Jesus redeemed us, His treasured possession. (9 days left until Christmas)
  17. Read Luke 2:16-20. Have a Christmas carol sing-a-long or even go sing a few Christmas carols to a neighbor. (8 days left until Christmas)
  18. Read John 1:29. Jesus is the Lamb of God. Depending on availability in your country, have a lamb dinner prepared. Or – choose to make sheep by tracing the shape from the internet or a coloring book. Then add cotton balls or glue on crumpled paper towels to give the effect of wool. (7 days left until Christmas)
  19. Read Matthew 2:1-2. If you don’t already have a Christmas star on top of your tree, make one to place there. Or make a garland of stars to string above a window or on the tree. Again, glitter could brighten this craft up a great deal. (6 days left until Christmas)
  20. Read Matthew 2:3-6. Make some Christmas cookies, choosing your favorite recipe if possible. (5 days left until Christmas)
  21. Read Isaiah 9:6. Jesus is our Wonderful Counselor. Make an obstacle course and then blindfold someone. Tell them that they must listen to your voice which will guide them through the obstacle course. Show them that listening to wise counsel helps them find their way. Take turns and change up the obstacle course each time to keep them guessing and help them rely on listening to your voice. (4 days left until Christmas)
  22. Read Matthew 2:7-8. Play a game of “Hide Baby Jesus” where someone hides a baby doll or something that represents baby Jesus and the others try to find it, taking turns. Or simply choose to play your own version of hide-and-seek. (3 days left until Christmas)
  23. Read John 15:1. Jesus is the True Vine. Make a popcorn garland or use fresh plants to create a garland for the Christmas tree representing a vine, talking about how Jesus is the True Vine. (2 days left until Christmas)
  24. Read Matthew 2:9-12. Make this last day special with something that is traditional for your family. It might be a classic Christmas book that you read together. Or it might be that you have a specific meal where you invite friends and neighbors to join. Perhaps you watch “Elf” or another Christmas movie together. You might even decide to create a new tradition based on something in your new culture. (1 day left until Christmas)
  25. Read Luke 2:1-20 and pray together, thanking the Father for Jesus’s birth. Make a favorite breakfast and declare Christmas morning as PJ zone. Don’t forget the birthday cake! (Merry Christmas)

As you can see, creativity is key as well as availability in your country. But the main thing is to enjoy the journey together as you anticipate our dear Savior’s birthday, the birthday of the King! Whether you are in Uganda, another cross-cultural setting, or in your home country you can anticipate December 25th with the excitement of a child together!

An American Thanksgiving Tradition in Uganda

Thanksgiving in Uganda, you say? Cultures collide once more. Living in a country not your own means the opportunity to adopt new traditions, but having a taste of your past traditions can also bring some comfort in the absence of normal, or at least what was once normal.

Recreating your home country traditions in a place where you may not be able to access the normal products can be challenging. Perhaps you are accustomed to a particular brand of candied yams or always bought a Butterball turkey. Relying on the readily accessible now becomes a challenge. Those products are simply not available. Culture shock may settle once more as you seek to recreate the same tasty experience for you and your family. Missing loved ones that you normally share this time with only compounds the experience for some. One’s values are certainly challenged as you consider what is truly important.

But opportunity abounds. Creativity calls. Or perhaps advance planning prevails. Bringing some of those products with you in your suitcase could certainly help in recreating that perfect dining experience. More than likely, some of those have already been consumed on previous occasions. Maybe you received a CARE package with some of those items you are missing. For us, the packages were few and far between. Postage is just so expensive to send something to Uganda from the states.

For me, the search was on. Could one even find a real turkey in Uganda? Yes! They are there for the committed researcher, always with a promise of a nice fat, big turkey underneath all of those feathers and worth every penny. Not only that but they were range free, grass fed turkeys left to forage to its heart’s content. Hmmm. Looks can be deceiving and the purchase of the perfect turkey might just be more challenging than the seller is advertising. But! I found one! The purchase is made. The seller will even kill it and remove the feathers! We are in business!

Next? More research. How to prepare a turkey, essentially a wild turkey, in Uganda so that it is perfectly baked with its juicy interior preserved? For someone who doesn’t exactly enjoy cooking, this is an extra challenge. I had never heard of using a brine in advance to help tenderize a wild bird. Another education to experience. My best advice came from fellow missionaries who had already experimented and perfected the technique. Of course, the turkey arrives with most of the feathers removed and far smaller than I was lead to believe. But! It’s still a turkey. I must admit that my turkey never looked like the perfection in the photo above or even close to my seasoned missionary colleagues. But we enjoyed it nonetheless. (Perhaps I should have just gone with chicken.)

Of course, this is just the turkey! Still so many other items on the menu to figure out how to replicate. Pumpkins are readily available, so pumpkin pie will be easy, I “think.” You can buy canned green beans or buy fresh ones. Of course, I prefer French cut, so that will become labor intensive compared to the canned ones I bought back home. Potatoes. Check! No worries over that one. Plenty of “Irish” potatoes in the market. Now the traditional family fruit salad may not happen, but we have tropical fruits galore. A new fruit salad will simply have to be born in its place! So many items to consider.

I don’t know about you, but recreating something in a foreign culture with different ingredients can be challenging. It can also be fun! Inviting in some of our national friends to help us with the challenge and then sharing in its abundance together is rewarding. Uganda with its own cultures and traditions met these Americans with new culture and traditions. What are your non-negotiables for your Thanksgiving holiday regardless of the culture you are in? Is it people and sharing together? After all, preparing all of that food wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding if there were no one to share it with!

One of the things I realized in my quest to recreate the perfect Thanksgiving meal for my friends is the reminder that it really isn’t about the food. Thanksgiving is about being grateful and remembering. This is something God asked the Israelites to do over and over again throughout history. Hold festivals to remember and to celebrate with your friends and family. We would do well to follow this tradition wherever we go and whatever culture we live in.

So on this Thanksgiving day as I remember the years we spent trying to recreate our Thanksgiving traditions in a different culture, yes, Uganda, I am grateful for those who experienced them with us and shared in the abundance together. And I am grateful for all of my friends and family wherever God has brought them. Happy Thanksgiving!

Reverse Culture Shock … It’s A Real Thing

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Reverse culture shock is no laughing matter. Well, perhaps, but it is also serious.  It can occur without notice and blindside the most seasoned missionary. Perhaps it is trying to get in the wrong side of the car, driving on the wrong side of the road, or maybe it’s using an expression that no one understands here in the United States.  Maybe it’s being overwhelmed at a grocery store because there are just.too.many.choices!  Supposed you were living in a war-torn nation, the sound of target practice by nearby hunters can suddenly be alarming. For me, sometimes it’s realizing that I am talking with my eyebrows and all of a sudden I become self-conscious.  (Normally no one notices, or perhaps they are extending me grace by not saying anything, but I notice.)

Some say that the longer you are on the field, the longer it takes for reverse culture shock to disappear. Some say it takes one to three years. Still others say it depends upon how enculturated you were in the foreign culture you were serving in. Some folks even claim it takes just as many years as you were on the field to fully transition and reverse culture shock to completely leave. But truly, it is completely unique to the individual. While people make predictions of how it will go, the life of the missionary themselves must face each challenge as it surfaces.

At the heart of reverse culture shock is the reminder that you are no longer in the place that you call home, your new home which is not in the United States or wherever you were “from.”  You are suddenly very aware that you are no longer “there.”  It is as if your physical self has arrived but somehow your soul has not quite caught up with your body yet.  So strange to feel like a stranger in your own home country.

I remember as if it were yesterday when we arrived in the Atlanta airport. I rushed to the rest room as quickly as I could because I did not want to hold up the family who was ready to go through immigration and get our bags as quickly as possible. I take care of business and try to wash my hands and think, ”Where is the soap? Oh, in this pretty dispenser right next to the faucet embedded in the countertop. How nice. Okay. Got the soap. But, how do you turn on the faucet?  There is no handle! Hmmm … this must be automatic. Surely, I can figure this out. I wave my hand here and there. No water. I wave it again in another location. Next to me someone quickly goes to the sink, gets their soap and I observe as they just stick their hands under the faucet and the water rushes over their hands. Oh! That looks easy, as I pretend that I have not been trying to make the faucet go all this time. I put my hands underneath. Nothing. Phooey! I move them around and still nothing. Man, am I feeling dumbfounded.  My family must be getting impatient out there waiting on me. If I did not have my hands full of the soap, I would just leave … well, so I give in. The next person who comes to use the sink, I simply ask for help and she is kind.  She just moves my hands to where the water begins. I guess I just needed to hold my hands still longer for the water to begin.  I am feeling silly now. That was so easy. Well, yeah, easy once you know what to do! Reverse culture shock. I was in my own country but things were not as I was used to anymore.  In fact, things had changed over the last decade quite a bit.

To define reverse culture shock, or re-entry as some people coin it, is simply this: it is the process of returning home and feeling disoriented, out of place. It no longer feels fully home. Isolation, depression and hopelessness are common. The book Returning Well: Your Guide to Thriving Back Home After Serving Cross-culturally by Melissa Chaplin is a guided conversation and workbook to help missionaries work individually at their own pace on tackling reverse culture shock and all that re-entry brings. I highly recommend that you gift your returning missionary with a copy. If they take the time to work through it, they will definitely thank you since it will help guide them through their reverse culture shock immensely.

You see, reverse culture shock goes deeper than just certain physical actions and reactions that manifest themselves. It affects the emotional and psychological well-being as well as even cultural implications. You see, adjusting back to American life can be difficult. You no longer value things the same way you once did. You may even have negative feelings toward your own country for a time. You find yourself longing to be back where you were, homesick even for what was – for what you have become accustomed to.

Sometimes it is the expectation, or lack thereof, that catches one off guard when reverse culture shock hits. Keeping in mind and just having the knowledge of its existence can help stave off some of its ill effects. Having good closure at the place you are leaving is extremely important. This involves saying goodbye to friends and favorite places. If this was not possible, it is a good idea to find someone to talk through this with.  Personal debriefing may be helpful and/or seeing a counselor.

Another way to elude deep impact from reverse culture shock is to avoid the comparison game. It can be easy to be critical of your home country. If you are constantly comparing your home culture to the old culture, you are only adding insult to injury. The truth is that each culture has its own strengths and weaknesses. Comparing them is like apples and oranges. There is no real comparison, so it is best to just enjoy each culture all on its own. Over time, your critical spirit will dissipate as you reintegrate and reverse culture shock fades. But it does take time, so give yourself grace.

When family and friends do not understand what reverse culture shock is or much of your cross-cultural experience, it can be isolating even further. That is why it is important to process your thoughts and feelings with someone who does have some knowledge and cross-cultural experience themselves. It is key to share with someone who has been there, who understands and can normalize your symptoms. Because it “is” normal. You “will” come out on the other end. There “is” a light at the end of the reverse culture shock tunnel. You can and will reintegrate back into your home country when it is time. I encourage you, brother and sister, reverse culture shock is a temporary condition.  It will pass and know you are not alone.

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