Written by Gretchen Schwartz
Thanksgiving, family gatherings, decorations, holiday smells, a chill in the air, shopping for family and loved ones, Christmas parties, drives to look at Christmas lights, baking, and New Year’s lunches. The joy that fills the months of November and December is exhilarating. It has always been my favorite time of year.
When becoming a missionary, I never considered how difficult the holidays might be. I was so thrilled to finally be able to get on the mission field after all the itinerating, fund raising, packing, sorting all our belongings, selling our house, and other preparations, I didn’t consider that leaving just days before Thanksgiving was a bit hasty. I was just ready to enter our next season of life. I hadn’t even considered that the holidays we celebrated in America weren’t necessarily celebrated all over the world, and those that were, were celebrated differently.
The first three holiday seasons were a bit rough, but we made the best of them. I will never forget moving into a newer and much bigger house at the end of October 2003. We immediately invited our small American circle, mainly missionaries, to share Thanksgiving dinner at our house that year, since everyone could now fit. However, I was completely shocked when I realized the house didn’t come with an oven, not even a place to put one. I remember being completely crushed, trying to figure out how I would cook a Thanksgiving dinner for friends. Keep in mind this was the first time ever I would be hosting a Thanksgiving dinner. Thankfully my sweet dad had compassion on me and those other missionaries. He gave us the money we needed to buy a convection oven. Really that was the easy part, preparing Thanksgiving dinner without my mom, that was the hard part.
Christmas season revolved around our church members and celebrating the birth of our Savior with them. Our kids were small then, only 5 and a half years old and 6 months old when we arrived. We quickly learned that when family and churches sent a gift, we had to pay a tax on the amount declared, diminishing the little we had to buy gifts for each other. We focused our attention Christmas morning on making it special for them and enjoying the few gifts we were able to buy them. I did my best to keep the smile on my face, but inside I just wanted my parents and siblings to share these moments with us.
As the years have passed, it’s gotten easier in a way, however, you still know you are missing out. Every year I seem to suppress the loneliness more. I try to focus on the positive and on the people that are in our daily lives. I am thankful for the new family God has given us. No one will ever replace our parents, siblings, or family at home, but I also know God has brought people into our lives, people that we minister to and minister with, and they have become like family to us. Brussels, being the capital of the European Union, is a very international diverse community. Therefore, many of the people we work with and minister to are in the same position we are in, away from family during the holidays. We have a tradition now of having Christmas Eve dinner at our house. We usually have between 18 and 25 people from several nations. Everyone brings a dish to share, and we enjoy each other’s company. The more I am celebrating with people I truly care about, the less it hurts when missing those I love back home.
On more than one occasion, I have found myself pursuing what God has put in front of me to do and in the middle of it, I was completely caught off guard by sadness, loneliness, and longings of being with family. It comes out of nowhere and figuring out how to handle those emotions can be hard. Over the years, I have tried to follow these three steps.
- Find joy where God has called you. Find the things you get to experience now, of which you wouldn’t be afforded if you were back at home.
- Be thankful for technology and use it. During the holidays, it’s so important to set time aside to share in special moments with family back home. There were several years our kids couldn’t wait to hear their Papa, my dad, read the Christmas story to them via Skype.
- Create new traditions. Find something you can enjoy with those close to you and make it a tradition.
As a missionary with World Missions Ministries, I thank those who contribute to the Christmas 4 Missionaries offering. It’s truly a blessing to receive that gift, and it helps make our Christmas special.