December 6, 2009
It turns out that many countries around the world don’t start decorating for Christmas, or even thinking about it, till long after November 27. The Americans, Canadians, UKians, and many others have their decorations up, and the couple of major shopping stores around here cater to us with a surprising amount of decorations and items to buy. But Tanzanians scratch their heads and wonder why we’re so intent on finding pine trees in Dar es Salaam, on December 1.
Last Christmas, I planned a Christmas-around-the-World unit for grade 1 at Stocks on South African Christmases. I threw a beach ball around, explained the difference in weather in the hemispheres of the Earth, and helped students make palm trees out of pipe cleaners. To make the craft officially African, we used various beads to decorate the limbs of the palm trees before they took them home. It seemed pretty exotic to imagine going to the beach for Christmas day and having a barbecue for dinner. In complete honesty, I really had no idea I’d be experiencing just that the very next year. At the time, I was just starting my application for teaching overseas, and it all just seemed like one big dream. Less than a year later, I’m experiencing it in my daily life – warm weather, beach, barbeques in December, and palm trees everywhere. It’s a bit harder to get into the Christmas spirit, or believe it’s actually December, when the weather is getting hotter and the humidity is in the 90th percentile.
I’ve heard a number of perspectives on the holidays in the Land of Tanz. A couple of people who have been here for several years have completely gave up all hope of celebrating Christmas, let alone Thanksgiving, years ago. “It doesn’t feel right, there’s nothing to buy that anyone wants anyway… our Christmas tree was Charlie Brown-style and horrible-looking, with cardboard cut-out ornaments… who ever heard of having a barbeque on Christmas? I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate Christmas again for the next five years.” In the midst of missing home, snow, cold, and sweaters, I’m finding this attitude doesn’t help.
Others who have been here for years have accumulated the over-priced decorations and are now loaning these out to others as they prepare to return to their home countries. This is the perspective I’d like to keep as we go into the holidays. As Marie and I decided, we’d rather have a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, hand-made Christmas ornaments, melting cookies, and a few construction-paper wrapped gifts to give than to completely ignore the holiday season upon us.
It’s true that the “West” overdoes Christmas lights, presents, and “stuff” to decorate with during this holiday. No, these things don’t portray the “real meaning” of Christmas. But they do bring memories of families gathered around a Christmas tree, listening to Matt read the Matthew Christmas story at my grandparents’, and playing games as we munch on leftovers and desserts galore with already-full stomachs. There’s something about tradition that keeps hope alive and a certain warm, comfortable joy in your smile. While the weather here is warm, the humidity high, and palm trees abound – we’ve been watching Christmas movies since before Thanksgiving and are working on setting up our newly-acquired 130cm fake Noble Pine tree. Marie and I have hand-cut out snowmen, candy canes, gingerbread, bells, Christmas trees and stars out of construction paper to decorate our windows with (oh, how we miss the Ellison dye cut machines at our old establishments). And if we concentrate hard enough, it might just feel like the birth of our Savior is really approaching!
At the very least, we are gaining a perspective on what Jesus’ birth might really have looked like – and why, as a child laying in the manger, He only needed scraps of cloth instead of a warm fleece blanket to cover Him. I hope the animals didn’t crowd around too close, or He might have gotten over-heated!