From Desperation to a Treasured Tradition by Jack Popjes

“I’m the cookie baker,” my wife, Jo, said, looking up from her flour covered kitchen counter, “and you’re the problem solver, so solve this one and do something to make this place look festive and Christmassy. And, hon,” she added with a rueful smile, “no cookie tree this time.”

Ouch! That Christmas disaster! The previous year we had wanted to make our first Christmas in Brazil special for our three little daughters. I had secretly made a fake Christmas tree from thin strips of wood painted green. Jo had baked and decorated a dozen fancy Christmas cookies. After the kids were in bed, we hung the cookies on the little tree and put it on a shelf in the living room. It looked beautiful enough to eat.

Early on Christmas morning, our little girls eagerly rushed into the living room, looking for the surprise we had told them about, and . . .

Oh no! All the cookies. On the floor. In an ant-covered crumbly heap. Humidity and ants had been at work all night. Instead of the anticipated shouts of glee and wonder, tears of disappointment.

This time would need to be different. The pressure was on.

Emotionally, we were over-ready for a break. Jo and I, along with our preschool daughters, had just returned from our first six months of living in a mud-walled, dirt-floored, palm-thatched hut in an indigenous village in the Brazilian jungle. We had made friends of the Canelas and struggled to learn their complicated, unwritten language and figure out a writing system.

We had also battled baby-killing diarrhea and deadly tuberculosis. In the middle of our time there, we treated an epidemic of trachoma, a painful and dangerous eye disease that affected our eyes along with those of the villagers. Although we had little knowledge, few medicines, and no experience, we had been “on call” 24/7 without a break for six months, treating the sick and dying around us.

Now, finally, we were back among our English-speaking friends. We moved into a rented house on the mission centre, happily tackled a six-month stack of letters from home, and got ready to relax and celebrate every aspect of Christmas.

I followed our survival training rule: When in trouble, list your assets that could solve the problem. Okay, we had no money and Christmas trees were impossible to get, but we did have plenty of Christmas cards from family and friends. We also had a few shiny Christmas tree decorations—balls, bells and a small angel. I could hang them somewhere. That would look festive, but we needed a focal point, a place for presents.

The one area that drew the eye from the kitchen, dining room, and living room looked anything but festive. Instead, it was a four-foot wide eyesore of bare studs and rough boards featuring a large black fuse box with black electrical cables stretching out in all directions along the wall. At first glance it looked like a giant black spider—a decidedly non-festive focal point.

Hmm … I wandered about the house looking for inspiration. After six months of living in a drab grey dried mud hut, we were starved for colour. “Red is Christmassy. What do we have? Aha, there’s something!” I stripped the old, worn spread from our bed, walked back into the living room, glanced around and … inspiration hit me.

I pleated the red bedspread and tacked it up, hanging floor to ceiling, right across the electrical “spider” eyesore. I pinned our Christmas cards on it, making sure all the torn and worn spots were covered.

The balls, bells, and angel looked great hanging from the ceiling on various lengths of thin fish line. A coffee table with a manger scene at the base completed the ensemble. Finally, a desk lamp for lighting and woohoo, there was our colourful festive Christmas focal point.

Jo was pleased, and our daughters were over-the-top happy to have “… the best Christmas decoration on the whole centre.” Blissful smiles all around. Not a hint of tears.

Not until the following Christmas did we discover how successful that red bedspread Christmas focal point actually was. We had rented another house (no ugly fuse box this time) and someone had even loaned us a small artificial Christmas tree. But our kids insisted we put up “our red Christmas bedspread” and helped to pin the cards on.

Even after we had built our own house—complete with lovely varnished wallboards and a new bedspread—the girls persisted with the traditional red Christmas bedspread on the living room wall.

We continued the custom for many years, until the girls all left for college and we were in the final stages of completing the Bible translation project.

What started during our poverty struck years as a desperate measure to bring colour back into our lives and transform an ugly eyesore into a beautiful Christmas focal point, turned into a treasured and meaningful family tradition.

Jack Popjes started writing stories for their missionary newsletters during the decades he and his wife were Bible translators in Brazil. For the past 20 years, he has blogged weekly on missions, church, Christian spirituality, and Bible translation. His current blog is INsights & OUTbursts. He has print published three books and e-published two books of story based articles—all selected from his blogs. His storytelling ability makes him a popular speaker.

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  1. Tracy Krauss says:

    What an amazing story! It’s funny how things like this can turn into special traditions.

  2. Pam Mytroen says:

    What a heart-warming story, Jack! I love how the kids have formed traditions in our family as well.
    Pam M.

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