We were in a strange place and had no plans to spend our first Christmas there.
Eight years had passed since I graduated high school. College was not on my agenda then, so I entered the work force and had been there ever since. But now I felt God’s call into full-time ministry. Obeying it would require that I further my education. I would have to attend college.
What I despised the thought of earlier, I now anticipated with great pleasure. A chance not only to study the Bible at a deeper level and familiarize myself with the various aspects of theology, but also the chance to learn some of the material I didn’t when I was in high school. I was a loafer then. No interest in school. Couldn’t imagine how college would be in my best interest. Even though I could have gone free as a pastor’s child, I turned down the opportunity.
By this time in my life, I was married and had a ten month old daughter. I had a fairly decent job but not one paying lucrative bucks. Pulling up stakes and leaving everything and everyone behind with nowhere to go but college was scary. I had responsibilities. I had bills to pay. We went anyway. And with no jobs lined up. All we had to look forward to were student loans, and they wouldn’t arrive until school started—a month away.
In July of 1987, we left our home in South Carolina and headed for unknown territory—Graceville, Florida. A small town in the panhandle of Florida whose appearance and climate varied little from what we were accustomed to. One month later, I began a four year journey toward a theology degree. My wife eventually landed a job at a local daycare center. What bills her check couldn’t pay, we used student loan money to cover.
August found me back in a classroom, loaded down after the first day with syllabi bulging with papers to write and tests to study for. I was filled with anticipation, but I was also longing for December when we could return home for a week to celebrate Christmas with our family. I enjoyed college but had no intentions of spending Christmas in a strange place.
My first semester breezed by, and before I realized it Christmas week was here, and we were packing suitcases and loading the car for our drive back to South Carolina. Driving at night was more convenient with a small child, so we waited for darkness’ canopy and our child to fall asleep before we backed out of our driveway and steered our car toward home. Eight hours later, we pulled into my parent’s driveway. Since our daughter was their first and only grandchild, they were eagerly awaiting our arrival—even if it was 2 a. m.
Mom had been busy carrying on my maternal grandmother’s tradition since she was no longer able to buy numerous and lucrative Christmas presents. Gifts bulged underneath the tree and spread out onto the living room floor. Most of them had our daughter’s name on them, but there were plenty for everyone else as well. In fact, Mom had purchased so many presents that she couldn’t remember what she bought for anyone. The presents we opened were just as much of a surprise to her as they were to us. Our gifts were comparatively small in number to what we were given. Our family knew we weren’t able to spend much, but they didn’t care. They were interested in buying for us—expecting nothing in return.
We received so many presents we had to purchase a car top carrier to store our luggage in so we would have room in the remainder of the car for the gifts. When the week ended, we reluctantly packed our car and stuffed ourselves in between the gifts and made our trek back to Florida.
Each of the four years I was in college we repeated this tradition. Sure we could have stayed in Florida and celebrated Christmas with our small family and perhaps a few friends who remained on campus during the holidays. But we just couldn’t bring ourselves to spend Christmas in a strange place…a place that was only our temporary residence.
Joseph and Mary weren’t so fortunate. A tax census forced them to leave their hometown of Nazareth and head to Bethlehem. Not only did they spend Christmas in a strange place, but Mary also gave birth to her son in a peculiar place. Jesus was forced to experience what I hesitated to do. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. (Luke2:5-6 NLT)
Over the course of my life, I’ve spent Christmas in a number of strange places…places that weren’t my real home—temporary places of residence. But I’ve discovered Christmas isn’t tied to a place but rather a person. When Jesus abides in my heart, it’s Christmas all year long and anywhere I happen to reside. I’ll never celebrate Christmas in a strange place when I remember the true meaning of the season. Only by shutting out Christ will I find myself in an unfamiliar place.
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