When recalling a significant Christmas memory, Claire Ewert Fisher goes back some 30 years.
The executive director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Saskatchewan, Fisher and her first husband, Wally Ewert, now deceased, were working in Vietnam in the early 1970s and trying to create a connection with their usual celebrations. The weather was rainy and cool in the highlands for their first Christmas away from home.
“We wanted to be home, but couldn’t be,” she says.
In order to create a sense of commu-nity, they decided to invite friends over for the four weeks of Advent. But for a Christmas tree, they were forced to become inventive. “We made ourselves a tree out of bamboo and stuck it in a pot,” she recalls.
However, the Vietnamese people didn’t make a big deal of celebrating Christmas. “The Christians celebrated with church services,” she says, adding that giving gifts and decorating were not typically done.
The Ewerts decided to give gifts anyway. Peppernuts were baked and shared with the staff at their local post office. “The mail was our lifeline, so we felt that was important,” she says.
To plan their Christmas dinner, they took a trip to the market to buy a roast, the closest thing they could find to match a traditional Canadian dinner. It was customary in Vietnam to haggle over the price, but they didn’t. This in itself was so unusual that everyone took notice. “We paid the first price and by the time we got to the edge of the market, everyone knew about it,” she recalls.
The time spent with the Vietnamese people left them with a sense of awe. “We learned that God can come to earth and make God’s presence known in a country torn by war, that God’s hand is visible in people who care for others, even the foreigner,” she says.
Their time away, says Ewert Fisher, reinforced in their hearts the importance of family during the season, even taking time to remember loved ones already in heaven. While on another MCC assignment, they learned the value of this and brought the practice back with them.
“One of the rituals we instituted . . . was to gather as family [and] light candles in memory of family and friends who are no longer with us,” she says. “This ritual was complete with storytelling of memories with these people. It was a powerful way to keep memories alive while at the same time publicly grieving the loss of not being together.”