Friday, December 31, 2010

The Quest for a Tanzanian Christmas


Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful…

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose….

Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too…Come on its lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with you!

Snowmen. Fires. Pine trees. Candles. Wreaths. The North Pole.

Do you sense a pattern here?

Let me put it this way. We can go on and on with our children about how “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” but if the Church suddenly wanted to change Christmas to July 25th, there would be a revolt. Right? Am I right?

Everyone would say, “But it doesn’t feel like Christmas in July!” Somehow, along the way in our western traditions, Christmas became associated with, intertwined with, unable to be separated from….winter. It can still be Christmas without Santa Claus. It can still be Christmas even without presents. But can it be Christmas in the summer? Never.

I’m not saying there’s a problem with this. I love the sweaters and the snowmen and the candles just as much as the next person. And of course, I do believe that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in all its wonder and mystery and hope is worthy of a gigantic celebration every year. But even though none of us Christians want to admit it, we would be pretty disappointed to take out the pine tree, sweaters, and fire places at Christmas time.

So this is the dilemma I face as a Southern Hemisphere dweller. It’s summer here. I live in a city that never feels like winter, but December is the hottest, stickiest time of the year. We dutifully put up our ridiculously fake Christmas tree, display the candles that we will never light because the overhead fans will immediately extinguish them (unless the power goes out, in which case we are sweating too much to enjoy them), and laugh every year we put the “Let It Snow” plaque on our door. Gil and I have always struggled with it not “feeling” like Christmas, even being from California! But it wasn’t such a big deal. We went ahead and pretended anyway.

But this year I noticed something subtle. My daughter. The Tanzanian one, born and raised here, adopted into an American family, duel citizenship. Comments she would make. Just little ones, as we went about our Christmas activities. “Why doesn’t it snow here?” “Why are we making paper snowmen?” And then the worst of all: “Christmas in America is better.”

Ugh. Not what I want to hear. Of course, I want her to miss her relatives. But that’s the only thing I want her to miss about Christmas in America. I want her to love Tanzania; I want her to love being Tanzanian. I don’t want her to think Christmas in America is better just because they have the cold and the fires and the fir trees.

So it struck me this year. For the sake of my kids, I don’t want to keep pretending it is winter here at Christmas time. I want them to love the fun and the feeling of Christmas, but yet not feel like they are missing out on something because we are going to the beach instead of the snow.

But I’m really not sure how to do that. This goes beyond the bounds of my limited creativity. Couldn’t we just adopt Tanzanian traditions, you ask? Well, there really aren’t any. Christmas is a national holiday, but only those with a Christian background celebrate it, which is about 30% of the population. But the full extent of their celebrating is to go to church and then have a big feast at home. Kids often get new church clothes.  That’s it. And what about Kwanza, you ask? Um, yeah. Even though it’s got a lot of Swahili words, no African I know has ever heard of it.

So basically we have to create our Christmas culture from scratch. I’ve been asking my Australian and South African friends (who are of European decent) about what they do. I’ve been paying attention to what my more creative friends in Tanzania do. Some of them don’t decorate a very fake pine tree. Some use a palm tree. A couple families use a sisal stalk, which turns out beautiful, by the way. Hmmm. I need ideas. Let me know if you have any.

My hope is that one day, years from now, when we spend Christmas in America, that Grace will tell me, “But Mommy, it doesn’t feel like Christmas here!”
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