“Deck the halls…?”
Christmas without snow? I was dreading it.
Of course, the real problem with celebrating Christmas in Cameroon, West Africa, was that my beloved family was far away, but there was no use bemoaning that – it was my choice to spend 10 months in an Oroko village homeschooling missionary kids. So, I focussed on what else was missing: the traditions of a Canadian Christmas.
Though my ever-chilled blood enjoyed the tropical warmth, my prairie heart nostalgically yearned for soft, white snow reflecting the glorious colours of twinkling Christmas lights; for snow crunching underfoot while walking from house to house, carolling; and for green garlands and red ribbons festooning malls and mantelpieces. If I couldn’t celebrate Christmas with the familiar trappings of Western culture, I didn’t feel inclined to celebrate it at all.
Carol singing was forbidden in the schoolroom, and I surreptitiously avoided helping my missionary host family decorate for Christmas. I steadfastly refused to make paper snowflakes to decorate the village Baptist church for the holiday; it was all bad enough without introducing syncretistic decorations!
A wise and experienced member of my church back home sent an email encouraging me to use this year, stripped of all that was familiar, to find new meaning and spiritual insight in Christmas. He had also once passed the holiday in Africa away from family, and had found that year the most holy celebration of all.
So, I resolved to celebrate Cameroonian-style this year, instead of pining for traditions from home.
But even that didn’t work out as expected. (Remember those snowflakes in the church?) The villagers in Cameroon didn’t have much to write home about in the way of Christmas traditions.
When the sermon on the first Sunday of Advent was from Luke 19:1–10 (what does Zacchaeus have to do with Christmas?), I began to seriously examine this Christmas problem. What is the proper place for traditions and celebration in this arbitrarily chosen day commemorating the Incarnation?
The Christmas season – Advent, if you prefer – I discovered, is not merely a time to decorate, attend countless parties, and frantically amass gifts for friends and family. It’s a time of anticipation and preparation. Christ’s Incarnation is an event worthy of more than one day’s recognition. In the end, I did observe a season of celebration for Christmas – minus snow and Christmas baking.
Together with my missionary hosts, we lit candles on the Advent wreath on Sundays, and read Scripture and reflective passages. We sang Christmas carols from the hymnbook at family singtime each night. I even added a tradition of my own to the family’s celebration, teaching them the song Nun ist sie Erschienen, a German favourite my mom’s family warbled with gusto every Christmas all the years of my childhood.
Despite their well-worn familiarity, the words of the hymns, and the readings from Luke and Matthew were rich and new in this strange place. And as I practiced these traditions in an unfamiliar setting, they became more precious; not for their nostalgic value, but for the way they gave peace “on earth” in strange surroundings, and underscored the love of God in sending his Son to live among us.
Christmas morning, the sun blazed down as we walked to church, calling greetings to the villagers as we passed. Village children were squeaky clean and freshly pressed in new clothes and in record numbers. Sunday school was packed, the regular service even more full of villagers resplendent in holiday finery. The children went forward one after another to recite a poem or verse. The service ran long as each recitation was rewarded with a song and congregants dancing to the front to drop coins in the offering plate, and I left the church happy to have fellowshipped together with a different kind of family.
Most exciting was the re-release of the Christmas story in Oroko (the local language), hopefully starting a new tradition for the villagers, of hearing God’s Word in their own language. When one translator announced the booklet’s availability, he was bombarded by requests till the pastor shouted that it would be available after the service.
Perhaps what I celebrated in Cameroon was neither a Canadian Christmas nor a Cameroonian Christmas, it was a Christian Christmas. I didn’t need to strip away all traditions to find Jesus in the manger; instead, through traditions focussing on God, I found God’s heart of love in the story of a baby born in humble circumstances.