Christmas far from home

Abbotsford residents will be spending this Christmas a little differently at locations around the globe

Wendy Eros poses for a picture with her English students during a past Christmas's celebration.

The monks will be chanting as Kaylee Hall’s eyes flutter open on Christmas Day.

The sound from the pagoda next door will be the 22-year-old Abbotsford student’s first reminder that this Christmas will be like no other.

Four thousand kilometres to the northeast, Wendy Eros will likely already be awake and preparing for her eighth Christmas in Japan. She’ll already be thinking ahead to the turkey she’ll be cooking for lunch for her English students and the games to follow.

Nine thousand kilometres in the other direction from Hall, the Sales family will still be asleep in their Zambian home, their tiny “hideous” Christmas tree perched atop a small bundle of presents sent from family in Canada.

Every year, as Christmas day is rung in around the world, many Abbotsford residents find themselves celebrating many miles away from home.

For Hall, Eros and the Sales family, this Christmas will be a unique blend of the familiar and the foreign.

Hall, a student at Columbia Bible College, is in Cambodia as an agriculture development worker as part of an internship with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

Hall spends her week touring local villages on motorbikes to check projects in surrounding areas, learning the local language and helping write reports.

The only foreigner in her village, Hall has been learning about local cultures and trying to interact with her neighbours. Recently, she found herself sitting in the river – where many people bathe – when she was approached by a group of Buddhist monks.

They offered her iced tea, and initiated a conversation that saw Hall – a devoted Christian – and the monks comparing their lives and culture.

“More than two hours later, after the most incredible water fight of my life, we parted ways, maybe forever, but I will never forget,” Hall wrote to The News.

Hall will take part in an MCC Christmas party prior to Dec. 25, but on Christmas Day itself, Hall will wake up in a village where no one celebrates the holiday.

She said the day will be a usual Sunday but that, “my heart will celebrate Christmas.”

Hall said the lead-up to the holiday is a reminder both of the fact that many in the world don’t celebrate Christmas and of the general craziness that accompanies it in Canada.

But in the midst of 11 months overseas, she’s also looking forward to a piece of home.

“In August of this year, my mom sent me off with a small package of gifts for me to open on Christmas. Back in August, I was a little frustrated with her for making me bring the package along because of the limited amount of space I had in my bags, but I am grateful for it now.”

• • • • •

The tree – tiny, plastic and a weird blue colour – is not beautiful, Michelle Sales says.

But when you’re celebrating Christmas in Zambia, a Christmas tree is a Christmas tree.

As the big day dawns, Michelle and Trevor Sales, along with the couple’s two teenage daughters, won’t be checking outside to see if snow has fallen overnight. Instead, the Sales – who are in southern Africa to help on Seeds of Hope Ministries projects – have spent the lead-up to Christmas Day dressed in short-sleeved shirts and flip flops.

Trevor is managing a construction project to build a dorm for special needs children and renovating an existing building at the Seeds of Hope children’s home. Michelle and her daughters are teaching music lessons and choir.

Aside from a previous vacation in Hawaii, this Christmas will be the first the Sales family is spending abroad.

Zambia is a heavily Christian country, and Christmas morning is spent at church with the focus on celebrating the birth of Jesus, Michelle said in an email.

Gifts are not as important as in Canada, she said. But while some North American traditions might be missing, others do exist.

“You don’t see houses lit up with lights, although the bigger shops would have Christmas trees set up and Christmas music playing,” she wrote.

On Christmas, many Zambian families celebrate with a special meal of chicken and rice. Michelle, meanwhile, has invited Zambian neighbours over to celebrate and hopes to make traditional foods, although finding ingredients could be tricky. The neighbours have already come over to decorate cookies, which isn’t a traditional Zambian Christmas activity.

“It is so cool to share culture and traditions with each other,” she wrote.

Friends and family, meanwhile, have sent gifts for under the couple’s tiny tree.

Still, it’s been an adjustment.

“We are blasting Christmas carols in our hot house trying to get into the spirit of it all,” she wrote. “We’re dressed in summer clothes and flip flops and somehow Santa and Christmas trees just don’t mix with our tropical feel.”

• • • • •

In Japan, Wendy Eros is getting ready to spend her eighth Christmas abroad. Formerly a ministry assistant at Central Heights Church in Mission, Eros headed to Japan in 2006 for a one-year stint as an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teacher. She quickly fell in love with the country.

Now working as a full-time missionary/ESL teacher for MB Mission, Eros is based in Toyota City. For her, Christmas is an opportunity to proselytize to non-Christians and share the roots of the holiday.

“For the Japanese, Christmas is mostly about having special cakes to eat,” Eros wrote in an email. “Because it’s a regular working day, there isn’t much celebration around this day. Some families will put up decorations and trees, but not many. The stores sell lights and fake trees but at a very high cost.”

While Santa is “everywhere,” Jesus or nativity scenes are rarely seen.

On Dec. 24, Eros will head to church for a candle service. The following day, her church will hold a potluck lunch, with games played after. A large kitchen means Eros will be able to cook a turkey, a rare dish in Japan.

The last two years, Eros wrote a short English nativity play for her students – who are a range of ages – to perform. This year there will be no play, but students will wear nativity costumes in a game after lunch.

Eros was last home for Christmas three years ago. She said she misses her granddaughters, but looks forward to seeing them on return visits to Abbotsford in August and through regular Skype calls.

It’s during those August visits that Eros celebrates Christmas, complete with a barbecued turkey and a tree at her sister’s Edmonton home.