I Need a Silent Night

by Elizabeth

The pace of life in Phnom Penh can, all too often, be hurried and hectic. It’s not your traditional (imaginary) missionary life. It’s crazy, and it’s crazy-making, and I need to call a time-out. I need some space to breathe.

Over the last four months especially, a series of events have left me feeling dry and depleted. And now we’re smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, a season that creates its own frenzy. Lights! Tinsel! Frosted cookies!

Invitations pile up. Attendance feels mandatory at open houses and parties, cookie exchanges and carolings, even church services. These are all worthwhile and enjoyable activities. Even so, the expectations begin to mount. And for me, this time around, it all felt like a mountain I couldn’t scale.

When exactly did having Christmas cheer come to mean doing lots of Christmas activities? I don’t just want the appearance of Christmas cheer; I want Christmas cheer on the inside. But I’m not sure I can get it by doing Christmas the way it’s usually done.

So this year, I’m rebelling. I want a simple Christmas, and I’m taking drastic measures. I’m turning down invitations. I’m aware this might make me appear Scrooge-like and Grinchy. I’m risking it anyway. I’m sitting this season out. (On my couch.) I’m regrouping, retrenching, retreating. Clearing the calendar, saying no, and staying home.

In a culture where our worth is measured by how busy we are, I’m choosing to be countercultural, to go against the flow — or better yet, to drop out of the flow. For the sake of my sanity and for the good of my family’s emotional health.

So this Christmas season, you’ll find me sitting in my living room each evening, main lights dimmed but tree lights twinkling. You’ll find me singing my favorite Christmas carols with my family, resting in the news of the Christ Child and welcoming the peace He brings.

I’m losing myself in the marvel of the Christmas Story, in the wonder of the God-made-flesh, the One who dwelt among men. I’m ignoring the social scene and even the rush to buy presents, and I’m getting swept up in the mystery and majesty of the Nativity. I’m absorbing the Advent, and meeting God in the Messiah. I’m slowing down and savoring the story of our Savior.


*Title inspired by Amy Grant’s song “I Need a Silent Night”

Photo credit

In Search of Christmas Spirit (or, an ode to Christmases past and present)

— by Elizabeth

I remember seemingly endless 8 hour drives in the snow from my home in South Dakota to Grandpa and Grandma’s home in Iowa. I remember being stuffed into a house with 30 other cousins and aunts and uncles and stuffing myself with hoska and rolickies and kolaches (Czech pastries my grandma would make).

I remember my mom’s sugar cookies and butter cookies and thumbprint cookies.  I remember staying up late and eating popcorn and watching It’s a Wonderful Life with my parents and my sisters. I remember being fascinated by our German candle pyramid.


And I remember “that one Christmas,” when money was so tight that we weren’t going to get any presents, and how it didn’t matter to us anyway, but someone gave us money on Christmas Eve, and how totally surprised we were the next day.

Jonathan and I developed our own family Christmas traditions since we married 12 years ago. We would go to a Christmas tree farm, find a tree that was invariably too large for our miniature apartment, cut it down, and crunch it into our microscopic Geo Prism. String it with lights and childhood ornaments while Amy Grant’s Home for Christmas album played in the background. Watch the Muppet’s Christmas Carol with friends and White Christmas with family. I would make those peanut-butter-ritz-sandwich-cookies-dipped-in-chocolate (what are those things called anyway??).

We continued our traditions (and adopted new ones) when we moved back to Kansas City. More kids were being born all the time, and we would include them in the cookie-baking, fire-making, tree-picking processes.  Every December Jonathan and I would go to Skies restaurant at the top of the Hyatt and eat Sky High Pie – their famous three layer ice cream pie. We would remember our year and dream about the next one. We would drive our family around the city and admire the Christmas lights on Ward Parkway. We would go to Crown Center and absolutely freeze while our children played underneath that enormous Christmas tree outside.


Cambodia has no cultural cues that it’s time to celebrate Christmas. Life goes on much the same as it has all year. No cold weather. No Christmas lights, no music, just more of the same wedding and funeral tents blocking traffic. No crazy shoppers. (Or perhaps the shoppers are as crazy as they have been all year??)

We had planned to spend Thanksgiving with some other Team Expansion missionaries, but the week before Thanksgiving, our kids got sick with Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. It’s highly contagious, and we needed to stay at home until all our children had caught it and recovered from it. (This means we were quarantined at home for a full 2 weeks, by the way.) So instead of spending Thanksgiving with our friends, we were alone — and lonely. Our friends delivered some Thanksgiving food. I didn’t feel very festive. I didn’t even want to celebrate Christmas if it were going to be different from Christmas in America.

We hadn’t brought our ornaments from the States because of lack of space in suitcases in January. I didn’t want a tree if I couldn’t have my own precious ornaments (reminiscent of a toddler temper tantrum). Then I watched a Christmas movie and read a Christmas book (both modeled after the classic A Christmas Carol story). And then some family visited us at the last minute, bringing some of our ornaments with them, and giving us the motivation to buy an artificial tree.

Later that week I watched Isaac’s Christmas play at church. I listened to these songs being performed by children from all over the world. In the middle of one of the songs it hit me: I can celebrate Christmas in Cambodia — because I’m with others who celebrate the Christ Child.

And I cried.

(Of course.)

We sang all my favorite carols at church that day, from Oh Come Oh Come Emmanuel, and Joy to the World, to Oh Holy Night and What Child is This? I felt like I had come home.

We’re going to keep old traditions in Cambodia. We’ll still watch Christmas movies (most likely with the  air conditioning cranked up). We’ll still decorate a tree and listen to Christmas music. We’ll still read the Gospel according to Luke.  But we’re going to make new traditions in Cambodia too. We’ll probably always sing, along with the Bronx-accented camels in Isaac’s play, “I walked so far now my hooves.have.corns” and remember that time when Isaac was singing it in the shower and we were listening and Jonathan wanted to surprise him at the “corns” part but when he opened the door, Isaac was so scared he fell on his backside onto the bathroom tile. (Ouch!) We’ll dance to Straight No Chaser’s 12 Days of Christmas on our tiled living room floor. We’ll joke about how “we spent Christmas down in Asia” instead of the song’s “I spent Christmas down in Africa.”


And we’ll celebrate this Christmas with dear friends.  As long as we don’t get sick again (and feel free to pray for that), we’re looking forward to eating a Christmas meal with two other families here in Phnom Penh — friends who have become dearer to me in my first year in Asia than I could ever have imagined.