So a while ago we celebrated our third Christmas here in Kibuye. Seems strange in many ways – that we have already been here long enough to celebrate Christmas for the third time. Feels strange that we have made this place our home that we only visited for the first time when we arrived here on the day of the coup back in May ’15. That this place we moved to “temporarily” just before Christmas that same year and yet by last Christmas had already lived in our house for a year.
Here’s what Christmas has felt like – at least for me: strange.
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 <8hour days of Alberta in winter and ~20hrs of daylight in late June), leaves on trees, activities (school year, holidays, skiing, etc.) 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, so it is honestly not unusual for me to actually forget that I’m currently in a season that for the previous 40 years of my life I referred to as “spring” or whatever the case may be.
Leading up to Christmas here is a bit different as there are no stores to have Boxing Day, Les Soldes, or Black Friday like in other places we’ve lived (well, I guess that should be expected as there are no stores). There is no radio here, or places that start to play Christmas music. There are no ornaments, decorations, or signs up on houses, buildings, churches, schools. No concerts or staff parties, no sledding with cousins, or hockey and skating on the frozen pond.
Honestly, at one point when we decorated the house and started playing Christmas music, I had a strange feeling like we were merely 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. Snowmen, snowflakes, angels-in-the-snow 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, VAST MAJORITY of the world who would celebrate Christmas in December would have none of those things.
The other thing that really became clear was that some traditions are just held so much stronger than others. Traditions are funny things. They’re just some kind of activity that you do more than once, really. If you go out for Chinese food on 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 just cease to be a 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 decorations of woven straw, carved wood, and paper. Simple red, white and the earthy-beige of straw and wood on the green tree. 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 candle-light carol service at church. To me, in so many ways, that is Christmas.
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.
But the reality is that for our kids, camping in Tanzania during Christmas break will likely be a stronger memory than any of those things. Honestly, I do feel a sense of loss for that. Like they have been deprived of something. Because they have. That sense of extended family. That sense of rootedness that I used to feel when I was young, going to my grandma’s house that my grandfather built for her back in 1929. I have memories of four generations gathering together in that place that in so many ways was obviously and directly tied to who our family was, to who I was. That house, that small farming community in southern Saskatchewan was and always will be a part of who I am despite the fact that I have never lived there.
This year was the 21st Christmas we have celebrated since we got married. I think it was the 10th that we’ve been living overseas and not been able to travel home. But still – every time it seems strange to not be ‘home’ – whatever that means after all this time.
So yes – Christmas seemed a bit strange this year. I think the first 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 were 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.
Actually, they did it twice up at the hospital, once at the local public school, and in church on Christmas Day.
Our teammate Logan wrote a blog post about it over on the team blog complete with video if you want a look. 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.
Christmas eve we all spent some time together reading familiar passages about that first Christmas, and singing some of the songs that are 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.
We had Christmas together as a family – opening presents. Some homemade, some locally made, and a few items that we had brought over via visitors who have travelled here and give up luggage space for such things.
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).
So did it feel like a normal Christmas for me? Nope. But in some ways, it was so much richer. No overwhelming constant messages from a consumerist culture constantly telling us to buy more and expect more. 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.