Imagine that you didn’t grow up experiencing an American Christmas. You only know what you’ve heard on the news or seen on the internet. But for several reasons your family decided to move to America when you were in high school and now you’re in the middle of your fourth American December. You’ve learned that a trip to the mall is like taking your life into your hands and you find out that Christmas is about living a glittery, red-and-green life at a frantic and unsustainable speed. From what you can tell, Christmas must be the “most wonderful time of the year” because Americans love to cram their minutes, hours and days with parties, dances, programs, recitals, lots of food, religious services and even occasional community service or charitable donations. Sometimes you might wonder what a “Holy Night” or a “Silent Night” has to do with anything, but you quickly decide that whatever it means it’s not important to the observation of a traditional American Christmas.
The truth is, this experience is more than hypothetical for millions of people in America every year. According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), the number of foreign-born residents in America reached 39 million in 2009—and this number does not reflect the children of these immigrants who are born in the U.S. Another statistic from the PRB reveals that “in 2010, the United States had 310 million residents; two-thirds were non-Hispanic white and 20 percent were Hispanic or Asian.”1 62 million Americans are Hispanic or Asian with another 13 percent (40 million) representing Black ethnic groups and 2 percent (600,000) representing other ethnic groups! And of course, many thousands of the non-Hispanic whites are Europeans.
Literally millions of our neighbors, co-workers, classmates and even relatives are new to the American scene and what they “know” about Christmas is what they’ve observed from you, from me and from American people in general as we go about the business that American Christmas has become.
But these 2nd (and 3rd, and 4th) culture people do not have to know Christmas this way.
Recently, I came across Isaiah 11 as I began my personal Advent celebration. In this passage, Isaiah records one of the Messianic prophecies that was and is and will be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. I immediately began to wonder how this Scripture could help us—the American Church—go beyond merely ignoring or tolerating those from other cultures to actually demonstrating the Gospel to them during the holiday season.
“The Spirit of the LORD will rest on [Jesus]—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—and He will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what He sees with His eyes, or decide by what He hears with His ears; but with righteousness He will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth.” (vv. 2-4)
Simple observation of the passage provides the following description of Jesus: He is wise, understanding and powerful. He gives counsel, possesses truth and fears the LORD. And all through the Spirit of the LORD resting on Him. These observations are nothing new to us who are acquainted with Jesus’ life and person.
But think about this: many other-culture people trying to live in mainstream American culture feel misunderstood or even ostracized; they feel unknown and disrespected; they experience the injustices of false perceptions regularly; they feel like they can’t ever really participate in Christmas here because it is so money-driven and … foreign. But what if they actually encountered the Jesus of Isaiah 11 during the Christmas season? His perfect power, intimate knowledge and sovereign justice meets the aliens and the sojourners exactly where they are. They are welcomed by Him, understood by Him and defended by Him. They never have to be afraid, ignored or mistreated in His presence. We are Christ’s presence on earth now; how will we be the physical representation of His wisdom, power and justice to the ones who are different this Christmas?
Let’s say that Hu Yao lives in your neighborhood, that you work with Angel Rojas and Filipe Gustafe or that you go to school with Fatima Rahman. Even if you’ve decided to participate in something like Advent Conspiracy or Project Angel Tree instead of spending lots of money on gifts for your family and friends, they won’t know anything different about Christmas if they don’t know you. Intentional attempts to establish intercultural friendships can demonstrate much more than good will; it is within trusted friendships that knowledge, openness, respect and opportunities to show love take place on a regular basis.
Sincere appreciation of other cultures and backgrounds goes miles in welcoming a sojourner and reviving the spirits of a weary pilgrim. Find out the interests of our friends and spending time doing those thing instead of a handful of ‘normal’ Christmas activities; play ping-pong for a couple of hours instead of watching a marathon of A Christmas Story on TV. Another possibility is to “interview” your new friends at a local coffee shop; ask them about what misconceptions Americans have about their culture and what you can do to avoid making the same mistakes.
Christmas does not have to be about the way we’ve always done it—it can and should be about becoming physical symbols of Jesus, who humbled Himself by taking on the nature of a servant and being made in human likeness. Jesus’ birth is, after all, good news of great joy that will be for all the people. What can you do to make all a reality?