The Christmas tree is already up in our house. It’s been up since November 14th. Number two simply couldn’t wait. She called me that afternoon and said, “Mum, they won’t let me decorate the Christmas tree”. They, referring to number one who can be a little bossy.
The what? I asked buying time to find my bearing on the current month and date. It surprised me that the time to ring those bells and light the Christmas tree was fast approaching.
“Mum, can I put it up?”
She sounded rather determined, and I was in no mood to argue. Besides, there is no rule against lighting Christmas trees in the middle of November. The Malls do it all the time. It’s a subtle way to pressure us into early holiday spending.
This conversation had me reflecting on my childhood Christmas memories. I don’t know what it was like for City folks but for us village folk, Christmas began on 24th December and lasted 48 hours. We would get up at dawn on Christmas eve, chop down the healthiest branch from our Cypress hedge, plant it in a bucket of sand and place it strategically in the living room.
We would then run off excitedly to Mr Mburu’s General store for some balloons. This transaction was a game of wit and luck as it involved some form of betting. The balloons came in all sizes from very small to very large. The cost, however, was standard regardless of size. You, therefore, had to pick a lucky number that corresponded with a balloon.
The suspense in the shop during this transaction was nail biting. So much so that fellow villagers and idlers in the shopping center swarmed around Mr Mburu’s counter like bees to honey craning their necks to witness the big reveal. The shopkeeper would prolong the suspense milking the moment for what it was worth. If this were happening today, he would probably start a live facebook chat to increase his audience for what was his biggest career momet of the year. Somehow, I always got the smallest baloon which now casts doubt on the man’s honesty.
Balloons in hand we would run back home, summon all our lung power and bring them to life securing the mouths with pieces of thread and then onto the cypress branches. Just like that Christmas had officially begun.
It’s also on Christmas Eve that my parents and other shareholders of a local coffee estate met to collect their dividends. They would return home just as night was falling with a well fattened lamb tied at the back of the pick-up to be slaughtered the next day.
Christmas Night vigil mass was attended by the folks and older children. I don’t recall going to mass on Christmas day. Maybe we did go, but the memory of that fades in comparison to the fond memories I have of the goat slaughtering and roasting that began in earnest at dawn on Christmas day with the arrival of Wagatiri.
You see, my father was a meticulous man who believed in order. He had a man for every job. Wagatiri, a short, balding man did the slaughtering and roasting. Then there was Johana Mukurino guy with a face like thunder who harvested our beehive and only ate food cooked in cowboy.
When Wagatiri arrived, we knew without a doubt that the animal was about to breath its last and there would be meat. He would bring his own knives and take so much time rolling up the sleeves of his shirt I wondered whether we would eat at all. He would then proceeded to slaughter the animal with the precision of a surgeon immediately roasting the kidneys for me the moment they were removed. (In my culture, they are usually given to the youngest girl)
I miss the simplicity and excitement of the yester Christmas. When the day was spent eating Nyama and drinking the traditional porridge that my mother and the other village women made days in advance. It was the only day of the year when soda was guaranteed on the menu. My brother Bernard Would eat so much he would walk around tilting his head heaven ward, afraid any other posture would see his days feasting spill out of his mouth.
Christmas day ended with the adult males in the family sitting around a bonfire enjoying a beer. Unlike today, it was never done in day light and not in the plain sight of children. We never saw our fathers and uncles stagger from too much drink. On 26th My Uncle from Nairobi would come to drink soup and eat the goat head with my father. It was usually eaten cold – I don’t know why. Probably to signify an abrupt end to the festivities. After this, the tree would come down, and life went back to its normal meatless, predictable self.
Christmas is no longer what it used to be. Expectations are high for expensive gifts and travel. Back in the day, we never exchanged gifts. Having the family together was the biggest gift of the season. While gift giving is a concept that has fast gained credence as an African Christmas tradition, it should be used to teach children about giving – of their time and talents; lessons that can be revisited all year round.
How was your Christmas growing up?