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Christmas in America (or How Silent Night Makes me Cry)

You know, it’s funny, this expat life. So much time spent longing for things and people in far off places. And never is that longing so palpable than Christmastime.

When overseas, the heart yearns for family, familiarity and the Tim-the-Toolman-Taylor-esque light displays. You go to great lengths (and financial cost) to procure the specialty import items – like canned pumpkin and chocolate chips – to make the holidays feel more like home.

When in America, the heart and mind swim in aching memory of Viennese Christmas Markets or the quaint-but-charming afternoon spent at the rural Irish Christmas fair complete with Paddy-the-builder playing Santa and enough cups of tea to drown the Pope. You go to great lengths (and financial cost) to procure the specialty import items – like authentic Christmas crackers or that perfect Gulaschsuppe – to make the holidays feel more like home.

Christmas in America

I have decided that Christmas (much like the expat life in general) will simply be a season spent in a constant state of tension. That tenuous balance between remembering the places and people who have so deeply touched your life and growth, and “blooming where you’re planted” and being fully present in whichever home you find yourself this year. I also completely understand that this tension is not limited to the expat lifestyle. But the expat life is what I know; I also remember LPE (Life Pre-Expat) and there is a distinct difference.


One song, for some reason, seems to buoy this tension, this ache, to the surface faster and more often than others. You might guess it to be something that conjures the concept of home like I’ll be Home for Christmas or Home for the Holidays, but no. While those songs stir a sense of nostalgia and longing in their own right, they don’t move the core of my soul.

Only one song does that. Only one carol awakens a deeper part of me that seems lulled during the rest of the year.

Silent Night.

Every time. Every language.

I distinctly remember the very first time I heard Silent Night in Irish Gaelic. It was absolutely mesmerizing. I also remember the year the community choir of which I was a member sang it at a special Christmas program. I stood there in the front row, tears running down my face, unable to sing a single note. The beauty and magnitude of the lyrics had so touched my heart, I was rendered speechless.

I also remember sitting in an overcrowded school auditorium. My precious girls stood among the throng of students, shifting and shuffling in anticipation. Then they began to sing, Stille Nacht – Silent Night in it’s original German. Once again, tears poured, heart pounded and my soul churned deep within me.

Last week, standing in church, the notes began and we all sang together the words of this beloved Christmas Carol. Instantly images flooded my mind. Images of my father-in-law sharing about the history of the song, of my beloved Ireland and the faces from our village singing by candlelight, of the children and teachers we hold so dear lifting their voices in recognition of this holiest of nights when our Savior came into this world. And the tears flowed. It was very nearly body-shaking sobs but I willed the tears to come alone.

Those memories moved me, to be sure. But it goes far deeper than that. You see, with each language in which I hear and understand the lyrics to this song, I gain a deeper, fuller understanding of the gospel. A fuller grasp on just how incredible, how incomprehensible it was that the holy, perfect, Creator of the universe would humble himself so much that he would become a human baby – the most helpless and dependent of creatures.

Just look at the second verse of Silent Night in Irish:

Oíche chiúin,
(quiet night)
Oíche Mhic Dé,
(night of God’s Son)
Aoirí ar dtús chuala ‘n scéal. (Shepherds were the first to hear the story)
Allelúia aingeal ag glaoch. (Angels calling “Alleluia)
Cantain suairc i ngar is i gcéin. (Giving joy near and far)
Críost ar Slánaitheoir Féin. (Christ, our own Savior)
Críost ar Slánaitheoir Féin. (Christ, our own Savior)

It was the last line that sent my heart reeling. To stand there and listen to a hundred people proclaiming Christ as savior, in their heart language, was almost more than I could take in, so great was the beauty of it. The translation I have given of those last two lines doesn’t fully do it’s meaning justice.

It is not just declaring Christ as the savior. It is written in a way that denotes personal possession. It brings an element of intimacy and relationship to the lyrics in a way I hadn’t grasped before.

And isn’t that what our God is? Intimate. Relational.

I may never stop crying when I hear this song, no matter the language – and I pray that I don’t. Because it means there are signs of life in my soul.

We were made to worship, we were created for longing, for beauty, for relationship. And Silent Night reminds my spirit that the only One in which to place those longings without fear of disappointment is this God who took on flesh. He was born, that He might die, that I might live.

This expat life sure brings with it a whole host of random and awkward experiences. But it sure has brought with it something far sweeter – a greater understanding of and closer relationship with Jesus than I could have ever hoped. And I pray it continues to grow sweeter still.


What stirs your soul?

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2 Responses to “Christmas in America (or How Silent Night Makes me Cry)”

  1. Heather says:

    It’s February 1st and I read this now. Loved it. Thinking of you Jen.

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