As her challenge for me, a friend of mine, we’ll call her…Daria (because I didn’t ask permission to use her name) asked me to write about how my life would have been like if I had never moved to the United States. Since it’s nearly impossible to know the counter-factual, I’m going to write a few things about the differences between the culture I grew up in, and the culture I’m living in. A few people have asked me similar questions over the years, so there you go. A story about growing up around Christmas time in a different culture.
If you’re new here, allow me to preface this post by doing a little introduction. For the first 13 years of my life, I lived in Togo, one of the smallest (NOT THE SMALLEST) country in West Africa. You probably never heard about it, unless you know somebody who’s involved with the Peace Corps, you grew up in a Francophone culture, took a French class or you are a Soccer (em, football) enthusiast. Or….or, you’ve watched that episode of Arthur and you went and looked it up. I should warn you that the following story is not meant to criticize either the culture I grew up in, or the one I live in. I am simply putting 2 cultures side by side to compare and contrast. Also, I left my culture almost 10 years ago, so my descriptions are entirely based on my own experiences viewed from my own vantage pont. You’ve been warned and de-briefed.
One thing a non-American could say about Christmas in America is this: If there is one thing Americans do really well around Christmas time, is to build the ambiance. It’s the Christmas songs on the radio the day after Thanksgiving, the ornaments you can’t help but trip over in every store, the obligatory ‘red and green’ themed…everything, the snowmen and the reindeer, the heartwarming stories and every online store urging you to get your order in before the 20th. But, Christmas day itself? It’s like a blanket of silence has enveloped the air. Everything is silent, as people spend the day inside, quietly (or not-so quietly) unwrapping presents, ripping and tearing wrapping paper, in front of a Christmas tree. It’s something that I had to get used to.
Growing up in Togo, there was a saying that Christmas was the children’s party and Easter was the adult’s party (it has more serious/sobering undertones). “Party’ is not the right word here, but neither is “holiday”. I think the french word “Fête” makes more sense as ‘celebration’ than ‘party’. How did you, as a child, know that ‘ la Fête de Noel” was close? It was the time for the annual trip to the tailor or seamstress, when fabric was bought and measurements were taken. A trip to the market for new patent shoes and frilly socks for the girls. Delicacies like apples, potatoes and fancy French or Belgian cookies and crackers made their appearance in the house. From every house, the pounding of fufu would be heard, as the aroma of various soups and stews would rise up towards the heavens, saturating the air and salivating every young child’s mouth.
At church, it was about praying to get cast in the youth’s Christmas play, or to at least get a verse to memorize and recite during the Christmas celebration at church. You don’t think it’s exciting? It’s a chance to show everyone your new outfit, your new hairstyle and your new patent shoes. Of course, it was exciting! The role of Mary, among the girls was a coveted part. Also, if you had a bible passage to memorize, the longer it was, the more impressive it was.
So, this was usually Christmas Eve. What about Christmas day? It was a celebration, indeed. It’s time to go visit neighbors’ houses and say hello to them. (And if you’re a kid, it’s kinda like Thanksgiving. A chance to eat at various houses and see who had the best food/snacks, because it is customary to share your food with visitors, and people pull out all the stops on Christmas day). You’d even go visit those people you never talk to. With you, you’d bring a plate of what you had made that day.
One year, I remember reading extensively on Christmas and reflecting on one of the songs we learned in class. I must have been in 3rd or 4th grade. The song was both the French and Ewe version of “Oh, Christmas tree!” I remember seeing Christmas trees on TV, and white stuff they called snow. I remember reading about it, but never seeing it where I lived. It never occured to me that they only grew in a certain region of the world. I decided that my family needed to have a Christmas tree that year.
I brought the idea to my parents who tried to convince me that finding a Christmas tree would be a near impossible task. I could not be convinced. I nagged, pleaded, begged, cried, whined, discussed, bargained, until my dad realized that he would not be at peace until a Christmas tree manifested itself at our house. So, I went with him to find a tree that kinda looked like a Christmas tree, but wasn’t. But, it was good enough for me. So, we had a Christmas tree. It looked something like this.
Then, I remembered seeing on TV that you needed to have lights with a Christmas tree. After more of my “repetitive requests”, my dad bought a string of multi-colored lights for our “Christmas tree”. Every time it was plugged in, it played various tunes, including what I came to know only years later, as “Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer”. I would have liked to see someone try to explain what a reindeer was to a girl living in a pretty warm climate in West Africa.
Every evening, I would plug in the lights, and like magic, the music would come on. The poor tree stood in a corner of our living room, doing its best impression of a Christmas tree. My family finally convinced me that we no longer needed the tree, a few days after Christmas. So, we got rid of it, but the lights stayed and were strung around our living room, every year, until the light bulbs grew faint and the music slowly faded and stopped.
What? I never said it was going to be an amazing Christmas story. What do you want from me? I’m not Allie.
There you go, Daria. This one’s inspired by you.