From my husband’s book,  Unfamiliar Territory I have decided to go down memory lane to our year in Kenya in 1990 and share the chapter that Jim wrote about our Christmas that year. I will share it on my blog each week in December. It is the account of 5 suburbanites from Wheaton, Illinois living in Kenya that year. God gave us experiences and memories that we still share with each other. Enjoy.

unfamiliar territory cover

A Different Kind of Christmas

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days.”

Charles Dickens

As December approached, it brought with it the realization we were in for a very different kind of Christmas. Because Kijabe is just on the other side of the equator, weather-wise, December is really more summer than winter. Day after flawless day, the same thing: 78 degrees and sunny, which I suppose works for you if you are from one of those places like Los Angeles or Phoenix or Orlando; places where people are supposed to visit, but never actually live.  But for those of us from the Midwest, Christmas arriving, unaccompanied by miserable winter weather, simply disorients us, leaves us feeling unsettled, off balance, like we’re about to get the flu.

The weather was just the beginning of what was going to be different about this Christmas. There wasn’t going to be any crowded stores with hurried shoppers, any Christmas music filling in the background everywhere. There wasn’t going to be any extended family or old friends.  There wasn’t going to be any familiar nativity set or special decorations or the usual church Christmas extravaganza. No, it was all going to be very different, very unpredictable, which was going to be a problem for me because I don’t view Christmas as a season well suited to surprises.  Except, of course, the pretend ones, like when we pretend we’re surprised by something we’ve had on our Christmas list for the last four months. As far as I’m concerned, Christmas is always supposed to stay the same: the same decorations, the same ornaments, the same lights, the same kind of tree, the same people, the same programs. I find something comforting in all this Christmas sameness. Maybe, if truth be told, something just a little anesthetizing.

Early on, it was evident that maintaining certain Christmas traditions in rural Africa was going to be a significant challenge. Starting with the tree. As one might expect, in Kenya, one doesn’t exactly find Christmas trees on every corner in December. That tradition, in fact, is one that is particularly suspect, because, as far as most native Africans are concerned, trees are a little bit sketchy to begin with. There is a widely held traditional belief that spirits live in trees, and therefore any thinking person would want to exercise caution around them. It’s not a good thing to park yourself or your house or anything else, for that matter, too close to one. Let alone cut one down and, horror of horrors, actually drag it into your house. I suppose today, most educated Africans would deny they actually believe there’s anything spooky about trees, yet certain beliefs do have a way of lingering in the background. It’s very similar to how most educated Americans, denying they believe bad luck results from walking under a ladder, would still take a wide detour into the street if they encountered one straddling the sidewalk. I am sure in colonial days, more than a few native Kenyans were left scratching their heads in disbelief the first time they saw an English missionary cut down a tree at Christmas, place it prominently in their home, get on their knees before it and give it water, adorn it with gold and silver and then, like offerings before an idol, place gifts beneath it. You can see how the whole thing might tend to blur the line distinguishing the Christians from the pagans.

But, culturally insensitive or not, it was Christmas, and we were going to have a tree. A group of families organized a bit of a safari… not looking to bag any big game, just a few evergreens. Missionaries tend to accumulate a whole wealth of little known, yet useful, information, like how altitude effects baking times for certain recipes, what to do for various bug bites, what snakes one should steer clear of (are you joking me?) and where to find evergreens in the forest that could serve as Christmas trees. So, the first Saturday morning of December, our whole family climbed into our “blue bomb” and joined the wagon train chugging its way up the deliriously twisting upper road that connected the mission station to the main highway at the top of the ridge. Singing Christmas carols in the sunshine, we turned left at the top of the hill and headed out toward a forested area many miles away.

Allow me here a brief aside on the subject of road kill in Kenya and its impact on the Christmas spirit. Whereas in the United States we bemoan rigor mortise afflicted varmints like skunks and raccoons and possums lying in the ditch, arms reaching skyward toward the great beyond, it’s a whole different thing when it’s a zebra assuming that same posture. Zebras, it turns out, are the possums of East Africa. The first one we passed, lying stiff on the side of the road, looked as if it was a life-sized stuffed specimen someone had accidentally tipped over. As we sped by, I had this overwhelming urge to do something, but for the life of me couldn’t think of anything more constructive than stopping and putting the poor thing back upright, which seemed little more than cosmetic. The volume on the Christmas carols would sort of drain away each time we approached one, then pick back up once it was out of site. Anyway, two or three zebras later, after about a half-hour ride, we came upon several acres of farmland adjacent to the great highland forest where there were a number of very, very, very, long needled pine trees that were fluffy and exotic looking and all wrong for Christmas. But, since it was a good seven thousand miles to the nearest Boy Scout Christmas tree lot, we decided they would have to do.

Everyone climbed out of the vans and, like GIs on a reconnaissance mission, fanned out over the unplowed field at the edge of the forest, trying to find that exact right, wrong-looking tree. The grass was chin-high on Jennifer, which made me more than a little nervous, as all the possibilities of what else, besides us, might be lurking in that field, started rolling through my head. This is what comes of watching too many programs on the Discovery Channel. As we made our way through the field, it wasn’t long before we encountered several mysterious areas, twenty or so feet in diameter, where the grass was smashed down flat to the ground. I could come up with only two plausible explanations: we had either just stumbled upon an alien-landing site or we were, at that very moment, traipsing through what was, in essence, some elephant’s bedroom. Worse yet, apparently in elephant etiquette, it is perfectly okay to poop in one’s bedroom because the other thing we encountered with disconcerting regularity was huge piles of fresh elephant dung. The word passed quietly between the dads to keep a lookout, because elephants were known to not take kindly to people tiptoeing through their boudoirs. Since they lack a full appreciation of the importance and meaning associated with the custom of the Christmas tree, they might just come charging out of the forest to express their outrage at the trespass. This definitely cut way down on my usual pickiness and significantly shortened the selection process. As we walked through the field, I tried to simultaneously keep my eyes on my three daughters, the edge of the forest, the pine trees and my next step. In record time we picked a tree, cut it down, paid an incredulous farmer for it and went hopping our way back to the car where we secured the prize to the top of our vans and headed home.

That night, with the Ray Coniff singers providing the proper, cheesy musical background (Cindy had remembered to bring the traditional tape from home) we decorated our hopelessly droopy, yet wonderful tree. Every year since Emily was born, the night we decorate the tree, we’ve given each of the girls a new ornament. It’s always a bird for Katie, a teddy bear for Jenny, a lamb for Emily. It wasn’t easy finding these items in Kenya, but we did our best. Kate’s bird was a kind of crazy, demented looking thing we had found in the big market in Nairobi. We drilled into its back and jerry-rigged it into an ornament. Jenny’s Teddy bear we had remembered to bring from home. But as for Emily…well, lamb ornaments were definitely in short supply. So Cindy got creative; she bisected a toilet paper cardboard cylinder, glued a piece of real lambs wool to it and then glued four sticks for legs and attached a forlorn cardboard head. It was truly the most pathetic looking lamb I’d ever seen, but Emily, the world’s most grateful child, saw only the love and effort, and declared it the best lamb she had ever been given. We laughed the night away, as we strung popcorn and berries, made paper chains, and put on the one string of lights we had brought with us. All our artistic efforts were, however, lost on our Kenyan house helper, Loyce, who would periodically over the next several weeks, give the tree dirty looks, cutting a bit wider path whenever she was forced to walk near it.