Twinkling lights behind a soft tapestry of falling snow is a Christmas scene that seems to capture the imagination of many. There is a beauty to Christmas that even nonbelievers of the faith find compelling.
Yet, the deeper beauty to Christmas is startling – a king in a manger, lowly shepherds at work, God’s stunning rescue of humankind. It is a promise of both justice and deliverance.
The stories shared here from the NOBTS faculty of Christmases gone by sparkle with the truth and beauty of Christmas. Though in varied settings, they are sure to delight. Read here of the joy of a simple and humble beginning; Christmas Eve with hot dogs in the desert; humor from a childhood Christmas in Communist Soviet Union; and a night of danger with military helicopters circling above.
SIMPLE TREE, BIG PRESENCE
Married on Dec. 16, 2000, Jamie and Tara Dew returned home from a tropical honeymoon to North Carolina on a cold, wintry Christmas Eve. The night was dark when Jamie carried Tara across the threshold and stepped into a foyer with stairs leading up to their small attic apartment above a duplex.
Fading quickly behind them was the tropical paradise with its warm breezes, palm trees and beautiful Christmas decorations. For their first Christmas morning together, they would wake up to no tinsel, no tree, and no Christmas cheer.
Or so they thought.
When they stepped in, twinkle lights warmed the room whose focal point was a tiny “stick” Christmas tree. Its wiry branches were filled with leftover wedding favors from two weeks earlier -- Christmas ornaments reading “Jamie and Tara.” All had been set in place by Tara’s parents.
“It was just magical,” Tara said. “It was so special for our first night in our apartment as a married couple to be Christmas Eve with the light of that little, skinny tree.”
Each year following, the tiny tree takes its place of honor in the Dew family Christmas celebration. Today it stands in the “piano room” at the president’s home on campus where each day a “Jesse Tree” ornament, from a set hand-sewn by a beloved friend, is placed on it. Each ornament tells part of the story of Jesus’ lineage from out of the “root of Jesse,” and ends with Baby Jesus in the manger.
While 25 ornaments make up a Jesse Tree set, 26 ornaments will be found on the tiny tree come Christmas Day. Filling out the wiry branches will be the one remaining “Jamie and Tara” Christmas ornament, a special remembrance from another special, but simple, day.
HOT DOGS ‘ROASTING ON AN OPEN FIRE’
Jack Frost doesn’t nip noses out in the Arabian Desert, and there, chestnuts won’t be found roasting on the open fire, but for Greg and Page Mathias, the desert proved to be the perfect spot to spend Christmas Eve with Muslim friends and neighbors.
As International Mission Board missionaries, the couple knew that many of their neighbors’ understanding of Christmas consisted only of Santa Claus and Christmas trees. Even the shopping malls of Dubai included Christmas trees among their December decorations.
As Greg and Page searched for ways to engage their neighbors and encourage them to ask questions, they discovered that inviting them to join in on celebrations could open doors.
“[The desert celebration] was fun, but it also gave us good opportunity to connect more deeply,” Greg said. “They really loved the singing and the carols, and that usually led to some good conversations and some brief opportunities to talk about Jesus and his birth.”
Retreating to the desert at night was a popular escape from oppressive daytime temperatures. In the desert, particularly in December, the nights are cooler, and clear. While roasting hot dogs and marshmallows “over an open fire” may not be a typical Christmas tradition, it proved helpful in building relationships.
“The celebrating of holidays was one way we found we could make connections with the Christian faith,” Page said. She explained that their neighbors’ hearts were moved by how faith impacted daily life more than by intellectual arguments. “It has to be participation. It has to be connected to how they live.”
A simple celebration in the desert was key.
“I really do think it helped propel our relationships and our ministry in ways that honestly, outside the holiday season, we just couldn’t have done,” Greg explained. “This was an easy win.”
UNCLE FROST brings in the New Year
Growing up in what was then the Soviet Union, Jake Roudkovski, professor of evangelism and pastoral ministry, looked forward to the fun parties in December that were about “Uncle Frost,” but not so much about Christmas.
Uncle Frost, a large, bearded fellow in richly-decorated winter robes and hat, brought gifts to little children in end-of-the-year celebrations that marked the coming of the Russian winter and the new year.
“The goal of Communism was to get rid of Christianity and Christmas was not celebrated as much as New Year’s,” Roudkovski explained.
The Baptist church Roudkovski’s family attended as he was growing up -- in the republic today known as Kazakhstan -- focused on Christmas and Jesus’ birth, but the beloved Uncle Frost made an appearance at the annual party, as well.
One year, the church celebration drew upwards of about 150 children, all in eager expectation of Uncle Frost’s arrival, including a (then) seven-year-old Roudkovski. After Uncle Frost’s arrival, Roudkovski sat near him, watching and listening to every word. That is, until something began to bother him.
“I’m sitting very close to him and I’m looking at his shoes,” Roudkovski explained.
Suddenly, the young Roudkovski jumped up and climbed into Uncle Frost’s lap. In front of the children and parents gathered around the beloved figure, Roudkovski exclaimed, “Hi, Dad!” Uncle Frost’s shoes had given him away. From that day on, Roudkovski’s belief in the gift-giving Uncle Frost was forever changed.
A different tradition has marked the Roudkovski family’s Christmas celebration as Jake and his wife Karen raised their family. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for international missions is a priority as the couple made a commitment years ago to give as much to the Lottie Moon Offering as they spent on gifts for one of their children for Christmas.
A NIGHT OF HELL-FIRE MISSILES
The phone call Ed and Kathy Steele will never forget came at midnight Dec. 19, 1989 — the invasion had begun. Being an American in Panama had its risks but when the U. S. president ordered Operation Just Cause to extract Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, the risk skyrocketed. Friends warned them not to leave their house.
When Ed and Kathy, IMB missionaries at the time, couldn’t get in touch with missionary friends Howie and Marvina Hooper staying an hour away, they feared the couple, along with the couple’s 10-month-old baby, had been kidnapped. Some men in their church decided to find them.
It was the beginning of a long day and long night.
Hours later, Howie and Marvina, and baby, appeared at the Steeles’ house, smuggled out of their home to safety at the Steele’s home. Though the rescue party had passed through points of danger, the baby had not cried.
They were to learn later that Howie’s sister had felt prompted to pray for her brother and his family, and had kept up her vigil throughout the night. Elsewhere in the United States, Kathy’s mother had prayed as well, convinced God would not allow her to stop.
That evening, the U.S. military gunship helicopters began their airstrike with hell-fire missiles and other artillery targeting homes blocks away where Noriega’s men were believed to be. With the windows blackened out, the two couples stayed awake through the night, Dec. 20, until the early hours of the morning. Though the tin roof above them amplified the terrifying noise, the children slept soundly through it all.
“We felt at peace,” Kathy said describing that evening as they leaned on God’s protection. God had proven faithful, yet the story was not over. God had another blessing in store.
Still sheltered in place on Christmas Eve, Kathy pulled out scraps of paper, cardboard, and all the craft material odd and ends she could find. The families had decided to celebrate Christmas by making gifts for each other. Howie’s gift to the Steeles was a cardboard cutout of a U.S. military helicopter with “Just Cause” stitched across the front on a scrap piece of fabric. The “Just Cause” ornament is now a fixture on the Steeles’ Christmas tree, a reminder of God’s faithfulness.
“Every year at Christmas we hang his ornament on our tree to remember the sweet fellowship with the Hoopers in the midst of real and present danger and God’s faithfulness,” Ed said.
“We had the best time that day,” Kathy said. “It has to be the most special Christmas.”
But the ordeal was not over. Noriega had not yet been found.
Early Christmas morning, the pastor alerted them that his family in Panama City was out of food and hungry. They determined to go into the city to help, passing military checkpoints along the way.
On their arrival in Panama City, an American soldier asked them if they knew anyone who needed food and supplies. They did, and using a network already in place due to the embargo, the couples along with missionaries there were able to distribute food, toys, bicycles, and supplies to hundreds of people. The items came from a warehouse the U.S. Military had seized, a warehouse Noriega had been stocking with items of all kinds, for months.
‘IN THE PRESENCE OF ALL PEOPLES’
The righteous Simeon had waited all his life for God to move on behalf of humankind. Scripture says he held baby Jesus in his arms, and overcome with praise, knew that God’s promise had come true. How thrilling is Simeon's declaration: "[M]y eyes have seen Your salvation.”
While these stories show many sides to the Christmas season, they demonstrate that “God is with us” regardless of location or circumstances. He is faithful and that is indeed good reason to rejoice.