“This Airport’s Christmas Tree Was So Offensively Ugly They Had to Take It Down”
[T]he people of Beirut, Lebanon were far from pleased with the Christmas tree that was standing in Rafic Hariri International Airport this season.
It wasn’t just ugly—it wasn’t really a tree. The structure was actually made of metal, fire extinguishers, life vests, and other recycled airplane parts.
The tree was actually commissioned as part of an environmental initiative from Middle East Airlines in order “to raise awareness about environmental protection and to prevent logging and awareness on the recycling process.” However, most people traveling through the airport couldn’t really get past the idea that they were looking at what was basically a Christmas tree made of garbage.
. . . . .
After many complaints, the tree was removed from the airport.
I have a soft spot in my heart for nativity sets. I think it’s because the cast is familiar and recognizable, so much so that it can be altered to fit any culture and we still know what it is. It’s kind of like hearing “Silent Night” sung in many languages. We may not understand it, but we understand it. Variations on a theme.
But, of course, not all cultures know the significance of the nativity figures. While we were living in Asia, a few blocks away from our house there was a knick-knack store that during Christmastime was filled with Western decorations. Here’s what I wrote about that in a newsletter, 13 years ago:
Amongst the jumble of holiday odds and ends are the scattered pieces of a few nativity sets. On one shelf is a shepherd standing next to a Christmas tree. On another is a stable with only a wise man and Joseph. Without the infant Jesus, there’s no nativity, and the figures become just people staring at the ground, elbowing for space in between the rows upon rows of Santa Clauses.
This is a time of gift giving. It’s a time of buying and making and choosing and wrapping.
In our family, we tend toward minimalism when it comes to wrapping gifts. From my father I inherited the practice of using newspaper. When your package carries the latest headlines, there’s no need for bows or ribbons. And if you’re feeling extra festive, you always have the Sunday comics.
We all know it isn’t the paper on the outside that matters, but we sure do act like it sometimes.
I think that one of the best gifts to give and receive—any time of the year—is the gift of our stories, our feelings, our truths. Sometimes they come in worn-out shoeboxes, in paper bags with the tops folded down, or in cardboard boxes marked “Kitchen” from the last move. They’re offered with trepidation and best received with reverence. They’re precious, authentic gifts, rugged and unedited.
And without a bow.
Are we willing to receive such gifts, or do we prefer presents wrapped neatly in shiny paper, with colorful ribbons curled just so? Do we want only the stories that have tidy, happy endings, tied up with a platitude or moral or lesson? Do we carry our own supply of bows in case the gift givers are lacking?
Are we willing to give those gifts as well? Do we hold back the deep realities of our lives, the honest hurts, waiting until we can decorate them with a “that’s when I knew it all happened for a reason,” an “I learned so much,” or a “now I can see it was all part of God’s plan”? In the waiting there is sorrow and pain.
I can’t help but think of my missionary friends, and other cross-cultural workers, too often feeling the need to adorn their stories so that no one will “misunderstand,” too often saying what is expected or what is easier to hear. I can’t help but think of myself when I’ve done the same thing.
Not all gifts are meant to be shared in the open. Some are too personal. Some can only be given in a private, safe, accepting space. Can you create a space like that for your friends, for their parents, for their children? Without such a place, their precious gifts stay hidden away. And hidden gifts are often forgotten and remain ungiven . . . simply for lack of a bow.
The decorations aren’t necessary. Give your gifts without bows, we’re listening. Receive our gifts without bows, we’re talking.
If I had a World War One military cap, I’d use it for a hat tip to the folks at Brigada.org. Thanks to them I got to see this year’s Christmas advertisement for the UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. It was created in honor of the 100-year anniversary of the Christmas Truce, when Allied and German soldiers, nearly five months into the first world war, climbed out of their foxholes and, in the no man’s land between them, found a way to celebrate Christmas together.
The stories of the Christmas Truce of 1914 come from diaries and letters of soldiers on the front lines in Europe. The people who made the Sainsbury’s ad tell about the background for the video in their “Story behind Our Christmas Ad” below, quoting several of the first-hand accounts.
Following are excerpts of what the soldiers wrote a century ago, showing in stark terms how longed for, and how elusive, peace on earth is.
From a letter written by British Rifleman J. Reading to his wife—
I hope you all had a merry Christmas; let me tell you how I spent mine. My company happened to be in the firing line on Christmas eve, and it was my turn—with a non-commissioned officer and four others—to go into a ruined house and remain there until 6.30 on Christmas morning. During the early part of the morning the Germans started singing and shouting, all in good English. They shouted out: “Are you the Rifle Brigade; have you a spare bottle; if so we will come half way and you come the other half.” At 4 a.m part of their Band played some Christmas carols and “God save the King”, and “Home Sweet Home.” You could guess our feelings. Later on in the day they came towards us, and our chaps went out to meet them. Of course neither of us had any rifles. I shook hands with some of them, and they gave us cigarettes and cigars. We did not fire that day, and everything was so quiet that it seemed like a dream. We took advantage of the quiet day and brought our dead in.
From Regimental Sergeant-Major George Beck’s diary—
Not one shot was fired. English and German soldiers intermingled and exchanged souvenirs. Germans very eager to exchange almost anything for our bully beef and jam. Majority of them know French fluently.
From the diary of German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch—
Soldier Möckel from my company, who had lived in England for many years, called to the British in English, and soon a lively conversation developed between us. . . . Afterwards, we placed even more candles than before on our kilometre-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination—the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake. It was a wonderful, if somewhat cold, night.
The following incidents will give you an idea of how some of our Tommies spent Christmas Day. The Scots Guards and the Germans opposite, by mutual consent, mixed freely with each other. They exchanged addresses, and promised to write to each other—a typical habit of Tommy’s. Two of the German officers took dinner with our two officers, and before they left arranged to play a football match on New Year Day. Six of the Worcesters had lunch in the German lines, and the same number of Germans had lunch in ours. Before parting, it was arranged that before firing recommenced on either side three volleys should be fired in the air. A week from now these men on both sides will be doing almost unspeakable things in order to kill each other.
And from the Royal Engineers’ Lance-Corporal Henderson—
The alarm went about midnight, and we stood up till daybreak, when we found that our pals of the previous two days had tried to rush our position, but they got cut up as usual, and I believe the next morning the ground where we had been so chummy, and where Germans had wished us a merry Christmas, was now covered with their dead.
Here’s a repost of something I wrote back in March of 2012—it was only my fifth entry—back when I had no followers and very few readers. It’s an interesting and timely story, and helps give me a break during the busyness of the holidays. May you enjoy the blessings of Christmas, wherever you are in the world.
In the early 1970s, a Christian missionary school in Tokyo was looking for turkey for Christmas dinner. Finding none, a representative contacted the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and ordered chicken instead. A KFC employee suggested the company turn the request into an ad campaign, and Japan has never been the same since. Today, KFC’s Christmas Party Barrels are so popular that sales for December 23rd, 24th, and 25th usually equal half of what is sold during a normal month, and Christmastime customers wait in long lines to pick up their orders, placed as early as October. Very few in Japan celebrate Christmas for its religious meaning, as less than 2% of Japanese even call themselves Christian. Instead, consumerism is emphasized, and the focus is on gifts, decorations . . . and chicken from the Colonel.
Tasha Simons tells about meeting Tavi, cofounder—along with Center for Global Impact—of byTavi, a “faith-based micro-enterprise initiative . . . [that] teaches at-risk, impoverished women how to sew handbags and other accessories”:
She shared her heart, telling me how she lost both her husband and daughter to AIDS and how Center for Global Impact (CGI) had helped her learn a skill. Now with the income from making purses, she could send each of her kids to school and purchase needed medicine to help her stay well as she also has AIDS. Tavi also shared about the pride she has in her home. She was able to replace her mud floor with a cement one, which significantly improved her living conditions. When we finished talking, she asked: “Will you be my sister?”
Along with Tavi, there are currently over 40 Cambodian women in the byTavi workshop. Another one of them is Sreymao, who serves as a manager and designer. One of her creations is the “Wave Bag,” a large multi-purpose bag with four slip pockets hidden in a colorful wave design.
I learned about byTavi last week when I spent a day at the International Conference on Missions (ICOM) in Kansas City and got to see some of their products firsthand. It is certainly not the largest organization selling “fair-trade” gifts and crafts online, but it’s on my list of online retailers with which I’ve had some sort of personal connection. Maybe you’ll see something you like, or maybe you’ll be spurred on to look for other outlets. (If you want something much more extensive—and maybe a little overwhelming—try the Fair Trade Federation’s searchable online shopping site.)
So here you go, four sources for gifts with stories:
Besides the Wave Bag, byTavi also sells handcrafted elephant coin purses, scarves, totes, and quite a bit more. You can even see photos of the Cambodian seamstresses—and read about many of them—at their site.
Rapha House’s Freedom Store Rapha House International is a ministry that fights child trafficking and sexual exploitation by, among other things, providing safehouses for girls in southeast Asia and by helping them move beyond residential care through emotional support and vocational training. Rapha House’s first safehouse was established in Cambodia, and their home office is located in Joplin, Missouri (where I live). Their Freedom Store includes such items as bracelets, cosmetic bags, and backpacks.
Saffron Coffee The Saffron Coffee Company sells “100% shade grown organic Arabica coffee” from the mountains of northern Laos and processed outside the city of Luang Prabang. It was started by a friend of mine and his Laotian wife (whom I just met at ICOM) to give hilltribe farmers a sustainable cash crop, replacing the opium poppies that they used to grow. The company sells bags of several types of coffee—ground and as beans—as well as green coffee beans by the pound.
Ten Thousand Villages
OK, this is one of the largest fair-trade organizations.. But I’d never heard about it until I read that a group of college students and academic and business leaders in nearby (to me) Pittsburg, Kansas, had opened up a store selling their wares from around the globe. Started in 1946, Ten Thousand Villages offers a wide variety of “unique handmade gifts, jewelry, home decor, art and sculpture, textiles, serveware and personal accessories,” fashioned by “disadvantaged artisans” in 38 countries. (Info about these artisans is included throughout their Website.) They even have a clearance section, featuring more Christmas ornaments than you can shake a handmade chopstick at.
In the early 1970s, a Christian missionary school in Tokyo was looking for turkey for Christmas dinner. Finding none, a representative contacted the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and ordered chicken instead. A KFC employee suggested the company turn the request into an ad campaign, and Japan has never been the same since. Today, KFC’s Christmas Party Barrels are so popular that sales for December 23, 24, and 25 usually equal half of what is sold during a normal month, and Christmastime customers wait in long lines to pick up their orders, placed as early as October. Very few in Japan celebrate Christmas for its religious meaning, as less than 2% of Japanese even call themselves Christian. Instead, consumerism is emphasized, and the focus is on gifts, decorations . . . and chicken from the Colonel.