I grew up in Australia as the daughter of immigrant parents. One from Indonesia. One from Germany. Family gatherings were filled with a mix of Indonesian, Dutch and German delicacies and a jumble of up to 4 languages in a sentence. The houses were always noisy and full and relaxed as we gathered together. And it wasn’t until I was in my teenage years that I realised that we did Christmas differently from most other Australian families. And the thing that made me realise it was the midnight service at church.
Being in a mixed race family, there weren’t really any hard and fast traditions. Not in the hardcore way that single culture families sometimes have. But Christmas was definitely our family tradition. Perhaps the only real one. Christmas in our family (and to this day I still honestly have no idea if this is all German and Indonesian families) is celebrated on Christmas Eve. The whole family gets together, we cook together, we eat together. For hours. We hang out. All the aunties and uncles, all the cousins. All together. This is the Indonesian component. If anyone has ever spent any time with Indonesian families, you know it’s all about the food. Over-catering is a given and there is always enough to last for days. All family gatherings are about preparing food together, eating together, spending time together and Christmas is no exception.
And at midnight (this is where the German/Dutch elements weigh in) we open our gifts, ooh and aah what we have received, and leave a mess of wrapping paper on the floor before sleepily heading home to our beds somewhere between 1 and 2am. Christmas day is actually spent sleeping in and then heading to the beach (a nod to our adopted Australian home) for a picnic of leftovers from the night before, followed by dinner at someone else's place - with the leftovers from the night before.
But then I started going to church. And suddenly, one Christmas Eve, I had to choose. Skipping church to enjoy the family tradition or going to church with all my friends at midnight and missing out on the family tradition.
I chose church.
But there was a cost. As more of my younger cousins started the same journey of attending church and having a Christmas service at midnight, this got easier. We would do the same thing - prepare food, eat together and hang out, but then we’d open presents at 10:30pm so we could head to our respective churches for the midnight service. Except for those who didn’t attend church, who would get left behind. And somehow, it was always a decision fraught with regret - either I went to church and missed hanging out with the family, or I stayed with the family and missed that celebration and seeing my friends at midnight as we celebrated the Saviour’s birth…
Cue marriage to a true blue Aussie and we started the juggle of Christmas with family. But for us, because of the fact that my family celebrates on Christmas Eve and his family celebrates on Christmas Day we didn’t face the crazy scheduling that most other families do on Christmas Day. We do Christmas Eve with my family and Christmas lunch with his - but again, I feel like I’m missing out because Christmas Day with my family is a bit like the after party - and what’s not to like? Good food, laying in the sand, swimming in the surf - it’s the Australian dream. But now I get to do what other Aussie families do and have Christmas lunch. Even though we are still full from our Christmas feast the night before.
But the same pattern existed - a shortened evening with the family before heading to the midnight service. Over time, it became less about being with friends at church at midnight and more about what we were actually there to celebrate, to focus on, to lean into. But still, we left the special time with family for this.
I never viewed this through the lens of the cost of being a Christian, and it may seem like a small one, but it is a cost nonetheless. There are many more obvious ones that get much more airplay, but it falls into that category. And it is mentioned repeatedly in the new testament, particularly in the gospels.
Over the years of being a Christian, I have been made fun of for being a Christian, I’ve been mocked by people I thought were close friends, I’ve even lost friends, and they were always the things that I thought of as cost, but as I reflect on Christmas, especially now that I am so far away from my family, I realise that celebrating Christmas, at church, cost me time with my family. Cost me those special moments that bonded us as kids. Cost me that beautiful family tradition that we had. And coming from a mixed race family that didn’t have many traditions, it is something that I mourn, even amidst all the joy of Christmas. But it is also what we are called to do. Even in the seemingly small things. To choose Jesus.
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