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Christmas celebrations assume world flavour for Mennonite Church Canada workers


Sarah Blackwell and her husband, Sam, pictured in Korea around Christmastime 2010

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Jeanette Hanson (far right) with husband Todd and daughters

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Mennonite Church Canada, with permission from Christian Week
December 2, 2011
-Aaron Enns

Winnipeg, MAN. —  Andrew Suderman of St. Jacobs, Ontario remembers the first Christmas he spent in South Africa.

"[It] felt rather strange, as we were celebrating Christmas in very warm temperatures," says Suderman, who along with his wife, Karen, is a Mennonite Church Canada Witness worker based in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of the South African province KwaZulu-Natal.

"Instead of decorating a stereotypical evergreen tree as our Christmas tree, we decorated a large houseplant."

Celebrating Christmas in new ways is one of the many things Christian workers around the world experience while working abroad.

Originally from Winnipeg, Sarah Blackwell currently serves as a volunteer with the Korea Anabaptist Center (KAC) in Seoul. While she says being away from family and friends can be difficult at Christmastime, it can also be interesting.

She fondly recalls how she and her husband, Sam, spent Christmas 2010 with fellow Mennonite Church Canada workers Erv and Marian Wiens. The older couple invited the Blackwells to sleep at their home on Christmas Eve and the four ate and celebrated together.

"Marian put together stockings for us, full of the usual Christmas treats … as if we were their own kids [or] grandchildren," Blackwell recalls. "Even though we still missed being with our families on Christmas, it made me realize that wherever you are in the world, you can be surrounded with 'family'—understood in a much larger sense—who love you and share this kind of experience with you."

For Jeanette Hanson, celebrating Christmas away from where she grew up is nothing new. Hanson and her husband, Todd, moved to China in 1991, and have since spent 15 Christmases there.

Hanson, originally from Tiefengrund, Saskatchewan, says there are two distinct ways that the Chinese celebrate Christmas. The Chinese church has huge Christmas parties, performances and worship services to celebrate the birth of Jesus and to share the story of Christ with the wider community.

"It is a marathon of church services, often three to four days long, morning, afternoon and evening," Hanson says.

The other form of celebration she has experienced began in the 1990s when the commercial side of Christmas began to catch on in China. Hotels and restaurants decorate trees, fake snow is used as a decoration since it is too warm for the real thing, and restaurants have special meals and performances trying to get people to invite friends out for meals and parties.

"Stores also advertise 'Christmas specials,' which always seems strange to me because people don't give gifts or have special meals at this time," Hanson says. "Young people have adopted this Western holiday and see it as another excuse to have a party. Many have no idea that there is a connection between this holiday and Jesus."

Hanson says her favourite part of celebrating Christmas in China is that it makes her focus on what the season is really about.

"I have learned a lot from having the cultural celebration of Christmas taken away from the celebration of Jesus' birth," she says. "I don't have to worry about the meal, gifts, baking, hosting. We just come together with other believers and celebrate. It has caused me to focus my thoughts on worship and thanksgiving to God for sending Jesus."

Blackwell says the same is true for her in Korea. "It is very easy to appreciate the lack of consumerism around Christmas here compared to North America," she says. "It is refreshing to be without the phenomenon that every item back home can be marketed as a potential Christmas gift, and the stress that comes with purchasing and attending endless events related to the Christmas season."

Meanwhile, the Sudermans in South Africa appreciate the fact that where they live, Christmas is an outdoor celebration. They spent December 25, 2010 on the beach.

"We of course missed our families and friends who live in Canada," Suderman says. "However, one thing that is, we think, unique about mission work abroad is that co-workers and their families become one's extended family. We are lucky in that we have several co-workers who live in South Africa and Botswana that we were able to get together with in order to celebrate Christmas, which made it feel as though we were celebrating this special day with family members."

This article was first published in Christian week and is published on the Mennonite Church Canada website with permission.