Well we have just (yes – over two months ago I realize) celebrated our second Christmas here in Kibuye. Seems strange in many ways – that we have already been here for a year, that we have made this place our home that we visited for the first time when we arrived here on the day of the coup attempt back in May ’15.
Here’s what Christmas has felt like – at least for me:
One of the things that I’ve realized being here is that so many of the external indicators, so many of the environmental signs of Christmas are completely absent here. This is not just something that you notice at Christmas however – oftentimes I will find myself actually completely confused as to what season of the year it is – as I’m used to temperature, weather, length of days (like the <8 hour days of Alberta in winter and ~20hrs of daylight in late June), leaves on the trees, activities (school year, holidays, skiing, etc.) and so much more all giving clear and constant indicators as to what time of year it is. Here however, since the temperature really doesn’t change at all throughout the year, being 2º off the equator means the length of days doesn’t’ really change, there are no stores to have Boxing Day, Les Soldes!, or Black Friday like in other places we’ve lived. There is no radio, or places that start to play Christmas music. There are no ornaments, decorations, or signs up on houses, buildings, churches, schools.
Honestly at one point when we decorated the house and started playing Christmas music I had a strange feeling like we were pretending it was Christmas – like we were having some kind of “Christmas in July” party. One of the things I’ve realized is how much of what we think of as “christmas” is so completely connected to the cultures and climates of parts of western Europe and some places in North America exclusively. Snow (snowmen, snowflakes, angels-in-the-snow, sleigh-rides…) are so prevalent in songs, pictures, and stories of Christmas that we really start to think that it’s normal. Yet of course the VAST MAJORITY of the world who would celebrate Christmas in December would have none of those things.
Our local church did have a special service on Christmas Day, there were even some decorations, and special songs. However the concept of the season of Advent leading up to Christmas itself – or any other “we’re approaching Christmas” event’s were utterly and completely absent around us.
The other thing that really became clear was that some traditions are just held so much stronger than others. Traditions are funny things. It’s just something that you do more than once, really. If you go out for supper to for Chinese food one New Year’s Day with your family, and then you do it again, and then even once or twice more – it starts to feel like a tradition. If you stop doing things – they can cease to be tradition. They morph, and they change.
But man, do i have strong memories of so many Christmas traditions. Sledding in the cold. Skating on the frozen lake. Gathering with as many cousins as we can.
My mom’s family has a strong Norwegian background – and our Christmas traditions seems to bring those out more strongly than any other time of year. The drinks, snacks, foods, smells, tastes. The sight of a tree with candles lighting its simple decorations of woven straw, carved wood, and paper. The singing of carols in Norwegian as we join hands in a circle around that tree. The visiting of the Jüle Nissa, the seemingly unlimited lefse. Christmas Eve candlelight service at church.
So yes – Christmas seemed a bit strange this year. I think last year I didn’t notice it as we were temporarily staying up here in Kibuye (we thought) – squatting in someone else house, and wondering if the violence that drove us out of the city was going to calm down again (which – in hindsight, it actually did) or risk flaring up (I get the feeling that risk won’t go away for a very long time).
However – there was lots of events that did make it feel like it was Christmas.
The kids put on a pageant in church – which was a huge hit. Apparently at least partially due to the fact that the idea of a Christmas pageant was completely unknown to the several hundred people crammed into our church that morning.
There was singing and dancing and costumes – Matea and Anna were the French narrators and we had our Kirundi language tutor translate. We sang in Kirundi, French and even threw in some English.
They did a dress rehearsal the day before on Christmas eve – followed by some time all together reading familiar passages about that first Christmas, and singing some of those songs that seem to be so closely tied to this time of year.
The next day in church it was almost overwhelming how badly people wanted to get a good look at what was going on.
Then we had Christmas together as a family – sitting in pyjamas, opening presents. Some home made, some locally made, and a few items that we had brought over a when Susan’s parents came.
In the afternoon we went up to the hospital with a bunch of our team and some visitors – for carolling, visiting, handing out some presents to kids in the peds ward (dolls, toy cars, hats) and reading the Christmas story. We did this last year also – and I think this may be one of those things that turns into a tradition.
So did it feel like a normal Christmas for me?
But in some ways it was so much richer. No overwhelming constant messages from a consumer-culture. No rushing around for things.
No shopping, no malls, no parking-induced anxiety attacks, no running around, no scheduling of multiple events. Just us, our kids, our community here -and real Christmas.
I honestly have no idea what our kids will think of as a ‘normal’ Christmas when they’re my age – but hopefully these years will help to form a sense of what Christmas is not.