My siblings and I grew up in Pakistan, and lived in constant fear, because there, people who love Jesus are seen as “unclean.” Since my dad was pastoring a church, persecution became more intense for our family. Radical Muslims would come to our house and beat us, try to kill us. At school, I was afraid to talk about being a Christian because I knew there would be more attacks on my family. When I was just 13-years-old, I was kidnapped on my way to the market. The kidnappers threw me off a cliff in an attempt to force my dad to convert our family to Islam. Thanks to God and my dad’s faith, I suffered no major injuries and made the 2,000 km journey home safe.
Christmas in Fear
In Pakistan, we dreamed of having a beautiful North American Christmas with colourful lights, decorations and a big wonderful Christmas tree just like in the movies (think Home Alone). It seemed like a beautiful way to celebrate the birth of the baby Saviour who had brought such hope and meaning to our lives. The only time we experienced this kind of festivity in real life was the time we visited a gated community of Christians when I was a child. They had it all—lights, trees, decorations and they all gathered in the centre of their community to sing carols together. It was the dream and such a drastic contrast to our simple home.
Christmas trees weren’t allowed in homes as some Muslims viewed it as a symbol of Jesus. I can still remember when one of our church members in our community put one up. When the radical Muslims found out, they invaded his home, beat him and burned his Christmas tree to the ground. As much as we wanted to enjoy a Christmas tree in our home and gather with friends and family to celebrate, our house stayed dark, bare and quiet.
First Christmas In Canada – Not What We Expected
On December 20th, 2011 we moved to Canada. Yes, just FIVE days before Christmas, that’s when our sponsor family from Brampton picked us up from the airport.
Snow blanketed the city on December 23rd. We were so excited about our first snowfall that my brother and I shovelled the driveway of the people we were living with, as well as their neighbours!
For the next 3 days, we joined other families going door to door carolling. It felt like a dream come true! We were so excited we had the freedom to do this without the fear of being attacked and possibly killed. But then, as we went around and saw what Canada portrayed as Christmas, we couldn’t help but feel disappointed. We always looked to North Americans as having the ideal Christ centred Christmas, but instead of hearing “Merry Christmas” we heard “Happy Holidays.” People seemed consumed with people-pleasing and showing off what they had and what they were giving and getting, instead of focusing on Jesus—the real reason for Christmas.
Those first few months in Canada, our sponsor family and church helped us get started with health cards, SIN cards and opening bank accounts. They helped us navigate groceries stores, brought us winter coats, assisted us in finding our first Canadian jobs and settling into our own apartment. We felt surrounded by a community that was set on making sure we had everything we needed, not only during the holiday season, but also over the first months as we started to call Canada home.
Second Christmas in Canada – Shiny but Lonely
A year later, we were more independent. The highlight of December was being able to decorate any way we wanted! We were living on the 19th floor and had a large window, so we put up the biggest sparkling Christmas tree we could fit on display for everyone to see!
However, life was laden with paying bills and trying to get around without a vehicle. When I wasn’t working long hours, I was in college or studying, so I had no time for a social life or making friends. I spent Christmas Day working my 12-hour shift. It felt lonely and still so far from the merry ideal.
Fast forward a few years later, and this coming Christmas is totally different for us.
I have a beautiful fiancé, and this Christmas her and her parents will be staying with my family. We will be all together on Christmas Eve, and wake up under one roof on Christmas Day. One big family—celebrating Jesus all together. Although the weather is cold and the snow isn’t quite as exciting as that first snowfall, we are so happy to be here and have the freedom to celebrate and express our love for Christmas and Jesus.
Looking where we have come from, and where we are today, we have been given so much that we feel like millionaires. And to us, what matters most now is what we can do for others. So maybe you find yourself in strange new country this Christmas season, with new traditions and unmet expectations. Or maybe you find yourself in a community welcoming a new family from a different country and wanting to help them out without knowing where to start! If either of those are the case, here are some ways you could make Christmas meaningful for yourself and your family or make Canada feel a little more like home for someone else.
- Open your home with hospitality
My mom always makes extra food just so people who are new to this country, or have no community around them, have a place to go and food to eat. We want them to have a place where they know they are cared for and important. This is one of the most important traditions our family treasures at Christmas.
Back home in Pakistan, this was totally normal. You never knew who was passing through your town or village. They were probably hungry or tired and everyone had an open-door policy. Here in Canada, that’s not the culture, and it was a difficult adjustment for us as it felt so closed off and cold. But instead of “fitting in”, we’ve been intentional with keeping the hospitable part of our culture with us. It may not feel like a lot to give, but it’s not about it being a lot. It’s about looking at what you have in your hands that you are able to give.
- Give from what you have
Often, it’s so easy to focus on what we lack, especially as we browse the web and write our Christmas lists for all the things we want. But instead, what if we really looked at what we have—what if we made a list of all we had? And out of that, we took a moment to think, ‘What do I have to give out of this abundance’? Yes, you can be hospitable like I mentioned earlier, but maybe the best gift you can give someone this Christmas is your time, your smile, or maybe even your story, to let them know they are not alone.
Our family rarely exchanges gifts anymore. We have so much here, and we feel so blessed. Instead of giving to each other, we give back to people who have nothing. We give back to the churches my Dad started before we were forced out of Pakistan. We give to kids in Pakistan so that they can get a proper education and have the supplies to go to school and learn so their future is bright. We know that we have access to everything we need, so it’s not a burden to cut back on buying coffee out or going out for dinner. A little bit of sacrifice for us makes the world of difference for those less fortunate.
- Discover the needs around you
When we first moved here the only winter coats we had were leather jackets. We had no idea that those coats wouldn’t be warm enough for what we needed. A family from our church community took us to Walmart and got us proper winter coats. What a blessing it was to be accepted into this community and have a stranger reach out and fill a need with such a simple act of kindness. If you’re new to Canada this year, don’t be scared to reach out and ask for help. The winters are cold, and you may not know everything you need to be prepared for all the snow and ice. But I guarantee there are friends around willing to help—don’t be shy.
And for the seasoned Canadian, when you meet someone who’s new to the area or who you sense might be struggling, find out what they need. Proper winter coats? Food? A ride somewhere? Laughter? Friendship? It might not be what you think, but this simple gesture of just asking could make a world of difference.
No matter what state you find yourself in this Christmas, I hope you are able to take a moment and reflect on the true joy Christmas brings. I hope you see the abundance of all we have and have been given, and seek ways to be generous with what’s in your hands. I hope you feel the warmth despite a cold winter though the kindness, smiles and hospitality we receive and are able to give.
And if you’re new and looking for someone to connect with who has been in your shoes, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org. I also invite you to ‘Come Sit With Me’ on December 23 & 24th at Central Community Church for one of our 5 Christmas Experiences. It’s a space to hear the Christmas Story where you can feel welcomed and accepted and safe to reach out for anything you might need. I also tend to spend quite a bit of time by the Connections Wall, and would love for you to come say hello!
This Christmas I’m looking forward to having our house filled with family, food and fellowship with no fear of assault or attack. I feel so blessed to be able have my family with me and my fiancé’s family all together for this wonderful time of year: Christmas.