One of my favorite parts about Christmas in Cambodia was the lack of commercialism. I particularly remember our first Christmas there. We took our children to the Russian Market (Tuol Tom Poung) and gave them each $5 to pick out presents for their siblings. Then we went home and took turns wrapping each other’s presents.
On Christmas morning the children opened their presents. They were thrilled with the simple gifts they’d been given. And watching their collective joy was a gift to me. With no cultural cues that they needed a multitude of expensive presents, they were satisfied with small things.
My other favorite part about Christmas in Cambodia was celebrating it with our team. With no extended family nearby, expats must forge their own on-field family. Early on, I had realized that my children would never experience the type of large extended family I had grown up with — dozens of cousins, aunts, and uncles who gather at Grandma and Grandpa’s house on holidays. And I grieved over that.
But every Christmas we celebrated with teammates. I watched as our children interacted with teammates like they were cousins, aunts, and uncles — and my heart healed a little. My children were going to experience something similar to my childhood; they just weren’t related to these people.
Truly, teammates are like family. They take care of you when you are in need, you spend holidays with them, and sometimes you even fight with them. Our first Thanksgiving in Cambodia involved both sickness and caretaking: our children had contracted hand, foot, and mouth disease, and we were all quarantining at home. Teammates brought us holiday-themed food to cheer us up; at least we could celebrate in isolation.
The experience of Team Christmas was a cornerstone of life on the field, and it was something I particularly missed during Christmas 2020.
Christmas 2021 was different. Some of our old teammates have also repatriated, and they were traveling through our hometown the week before Christmas. They stopped and spent the weekend with us. We used to have regular game nights with them. I went out with the wife every few months in Cambodia, and she and I have done nearly all the Velvet Ashes retreats together (although we’ve had to switch to retreating virtually since moving back to the States).
It had been over two years since we’d seen them in person, since we had farewelled them at the Phnom Penh International Airport. And it was good. We played games. We talked about all the things. And we began a new tradition: gingerbread house competition. We enjoyed it so much we’ve decided to do it again next year.
We hit a cold snap that weekend, and I froze. This was a major departure from Christmas in Cambodia, where it was always hot and sweaty. Thankfully Joplin weather warmed up nicely for Christmas Day.
Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, and I guess I didn’t want to say goodbye to Christmastide without honoring my relationships with teammates, both on and off the field. The years were good, and the years were hard, but the holidays were made sweeter by the presence of good friends. I’m grateful I could experience that sweetness once again in 2021.