Christmas in a Refugee Camp

February 7, 2017 • South Sudan

A Christmas celebration stripped of "normal" traditions is a reminder of the first Christmas.

Gracie Fairfax is the information and communications manager for Samaritan’s Purse in South Sudan.

A Christmas including lively dancing in the hot sun in the middle of a South Sudan refugee camp is quite a stark contrast to the hot cocoa sipping, snowy Christmases many Americans are accustomed to. But that’s exactly how I spent my Christmas. There was no evergreen tree, no gift exchanges, and, thankfully, no eggnog—although we did have some great homemade Christmas decorations. While my family and familiar Christmas traditions were an ocean away, I soon realized how much God was working in my heart to teach me what the true focus of Christmas should really be.

Following a Christmas church service, one of our Ethiopian staff members invited us to come to her office for a Christmas party. She had invited orphans from the refugee camp to come over, eat Ethiopian food, and watch children’s shows. This is an annual tradition. Paper chains and stockings hung from the ceiling, and the children sat in plastic chairs, drinking sodas and eating Ethiopian food and cake until they were full. They smiled with joy as they sang some songs for us.

Before they left, our staff member told them that she has children back in Ethiopia and loves them like she loves her own children. She also told them of how much Christ loves them. It was such a beautiful depiction of someone living out the way Christ calls us to love others.

Then I went to a Christmas party at the home of missionaries. They often welcome the community into their home for celebrations, so Christmas was a festive occasion. Women danced, sang, made “buun” (their version of coffee), and clicked small coffee cups together to keep the beat. Men with shakers made of cans wrapped around their ankles drew a crowd for dancing. One of the women whisked me into the crowd after she challenged me to imitate her dance moves. I grabbed a stick to match her and let go of my pride. I knew I’d get laughs for my dance moves­—and I did, but I’m going to say they were good laughs. We later made our way over to a keyboard to sing Christmas carols that served as a reminder of the reason we gathered together.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t like the festivities that surround Christmas in America, but when the commercialism and so much of what Christmas meant to me was stripped away, what was left were people coming together, loving each other as Christ calls us, and celebrating the birth of Christ.

To me, this Christmas looked a lot more like the presence of people than presents under a tree—and I felt a peace and joy in my heart that nothing material could ever give me. Yes, I missed my family, but I think it took taking me away from what was familiar to show me how much value I placed on the tangible aspects of what I think makes Christmas.

This Christmas caused me to reflect on the first Christmas and the humble way in which Christ came into the world. He was placed in a manger—a feeding trough for animals. His parents weren’t wealthy, but what they gave through Christ changed our lives forever. The first Christmas was free of shopping sprees, tinsel, and presents under a tree.

When we leave this place, it won’t matter what we got for Christmas or what we gave. What will matter is our relationship with Christ. Jesus is the light of the world. Nothing can compare with that gift.