20 December 2013

'Tis the Season

I haven't had a good Christmas in Africa yet.  The first Christmas I was here (2009), my Tanzanian roommates and I went to church in new dresses, ate a nice dinner, and I gave them each a CD, which I hadn't even wrapped.  It was weird, though.  We had invited our watchman and his kids, and randomly one of the pastors showed up, without his wife and daughter.  It didn't "feel" particularly Christmas-y, probably in part because it was at least 90 degrees outside.

My second African Christmas was 2011.  It was my first Christmas as a married woman, in my own home, but my husband was traveling for a week leading up to Christmas and I was eight months' pregnant.  I watched every movie I owned with any Christmas theme to it at all, from "The Family Stone" to "See You in St. Louis," felt despair at my undecorated walls, my lack of present for my husband, my lack of plan for Christmas dinner.  I finally created a Christmas tree and a paper chain ring out of recycled office paper and colored pencils.  Those pitiful little decorations made me feel a little better, but when Fred got home on Christmas morning and I still hadn't resolved the gift or dinner problem, I'm pretty sure I lapsed into tears.  (See the "eight months' pregnant" part.)  When Fred arrived home on Christmas morning, I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.  I cared about that Christmas so much: our first Christmas as a family.  Fred saved us from eating our standard rice and beans for Christmas dinner by announcing that there was a big, new hotel open in our tiny, little town, so we could go there for dinner.  Our big Christmas celebration was sharing drinks (juice and water for me) with a few of Fred's co-workers.  Hardly the cozy, sentimental, special memory I had imagined.  There's a picture of us that night, and my smile is not exactly beaming.

Last year we were in the States, which came with its own difficulties, but this year feels very important.  Innocent is eight years old now, the perfect age for getting wrapped up in the special season, and it is also kind of his first Christmas.  Christmas in East Africa is not like Christmas in America.  Perhaps this doesn't need to be said, but you'd be amazed how many people never think about the very specific cultural aspects of the American Christmas celebration.  For example, here there is no Santa, no elves (especially no Elf on the Shelf), no snowflakes, no stockings, no reindeer, no caroling, no lights, no trees.  There are very few decorations, very few Christmas songs at all (only hymns sung at the Christmas service only), very few gifts, and the whole shebang doesn't even get any attention until about a week before.  So here, the Christmas season kind of started yesterday.  Most families will celebrate Christmas with a nice meal, and what "nice" means depends on their income.  A middle to high income family will eat a large meal with lots of special treats (goats are crazy in demand in Kenya and Uganda right now for Christmas meals).  A poor family might eat seasoned rice (pilau) instead of ugali, or add meat or soda as something special.  Families who can afford it will buy nice, new clothes for each person to wear to church on Christmas day.  And that's about it...

So I've wrestled with how to balance the fond, sentimental memories of the Christmases of my childhood, the local customs, and the important, spiritual meaning of the celebration.  Here's how we're doing that this year:
          - We've listened to the four Christmas CDs we own repeatedly.  The Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas hymns seems to hit closest to the mark for all three of our categories.  Gladdening Light by my home church hits me in a sentimental place, though it's not a favorite of the rest of the family.
          - We "decorated."  A traditional part of Christmas growing up for me was my personalized Christmas stockings at home and at Grandma's house, stockings that they had made for me long before I could remember.  This year my mom sent me the kits to make personalized stockings for the boys, so we hung those, along with some strings of ornaments, a few bows stuck randomly around, and a "wreath" made from a twisted green piece of fabric.  At Inno's request (learned from a show on Disney Junior) I made a handful of snowflakes for their toy room door.  It's not much, but it makes Inno and I happy, and drives Wesley crazy with how many things up out of his reach are so shiny and breakable.
          - We made Christmas cookies for Fred's co-workers.  Russian teacakes are a Christmas tradition in our family, and a gift of a half cup of molasses allowed us to make molasses cookies also.  Mom also sent us two gingerbread cookie kits and some cookie cutters (a man and a lion), which we'll make on Sunday.
          - The most important thing we have been doing is reading The Jesus Storybook each night according to an Advent reading plan.  Wesley is in and out of this nightly ritual, but it's become very important to Innocent.
          - Christmas presents abound this year, due to the timely visit from the Lahash travelers.  Grandparents and great-grandparents sent many gifts for Inno and Wesley.  Innocent has only seen his stocking gifts and his eyes are already like saucers in anticipation.  He's been really cute about trying to plan gifts for his favorite people: Wesley, Uncle (Fred), Auntie (me), his sister Mercy and cousin Dady back in the village, and his grandmother (Dani).  I had to tell him it was too late to send gifts to the family in America, which disappointed him, but he rallied.  I was able to buy Fred at least one gift that will be a surprise for him, and at Inno's request I made him some pajama pants as a gift from the boys.  We supplemented the bounty from America with a few small food treats for Inno and Wesley, and I also made Wesley some "bean bag" chickens that are ideal for throwing and smashing and all that.
           - The big thing we're doing new this year, which might become a tradition, is going to stay in a hotel in Mwanza for Christmas day.  We'll be away from our "decorated" house, but the kids will get to play at the beach and we'll eat in a nice restaurant on Christmas day.  We'll take the stockings and the gingerbread men with us, but the best part of being away from Shirati for the Christmas holiday is that no one can call Fred into work!

Overall, I feel pretty good about the balance we've struck.  This was probably waaay too much detail for you all, but even just writing it has taken me out of the mild envy of Zoolights and snow and Advent services.  Merry Christmas to all of you, and may this season be a good mix of nostalgia, new things and the Prince of Peace, whose coming we celebrate!

1 comment:

erin said...

I enjoyed the detail Leisha! And I'm glad you're all set for a festive Christmas. I'm interested to hear how it goes and intrigued to continue to learn how you mesh traditions from here and Africa. I thoroughly enjoy the glimpses into your (and Fred and the boys') beautiful story!