Yesterday was my third Christmas away from home.
The first was awful! I had just arrived in Guinea on December 6, 2007; three weeks later it was Christmas. I didn’t have a cell phone and Skype wasn’t a thing that the average person knew about. On Christmas Eve a fellow Volunteer allowed me to use his expensive satellite phone to call my family. It was heart wrenching; I cried…a lot. On Christmas morning my host family gave me a warm bottle of coke. Merry Christmas.
The second Christmas of my Peace Corps service was a little less terrible. I was traveling with five other Volunteers in Mali. We were out of cell phone service so I couldn’t even call home. But that fine by me. I just didn’t think about home at all. We traded Secret Santa gifts, sang a few Christmas carols and hiked through the boonies of West Africa.
This year when I learned that I would be coming to the islands in November my very first thought was, “That’s right before Christmas!” Secondarily I thought of also missing Thanksgiving and all but my dad’s birthday. My entire family has birthdays from October 27th-January 27th– all seven of us. And I love birthdays.
I did not think this would be an easy or fun season. Being on a team with only one other single means that most of my teammates have some of their family already here, a built in support system. That added another layer of worry. I didn’t want to be left out.
It began on Saturday. It was English Club at my team leaders’ house. They wrote an entire post about this one night which I recommend reading as well at tmislands.blogspot.com. As I was not the organizer of the event, I thought it went splendidly. (You can read their assessment, which is a bit more dour). I spent much of Saturday baking brownies in my Dutch Oven. (Basically, it’s a big pot with a small pot inside- it allows me to bake despite not actually having a real oven). Megan had made cookies and popcorn that we distributed onto paper plates with the brownies to give to all attendees. As islanders do not celebrate Christmas, we spent the evening talking about the difference between secular and religious Christmas; who/what is Santa Claus; what are stockings; what is mistletoe, etc. We then sang some easy Christmas carols like “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Jingle Bells”. Finally we passed out the plates of goodies and drank Coke and Fanta. Seeing the excitement of some of the islanders to share in our traditions, I became excited too and began looking forward to the next couple days.
Sunday and Monday flew by with preparations- shopping for ingredients, shopping for presents, peeling fruit, chopping onions and kneading dough. Christmas Eve found me in my tiny kitchen all day. I made mango and lychee jam to give as presents to my island friends. I made four more batches of brownies. I made curried pasta salad. I made ricotta cheese and lasagna noodles- from scratch. And all the while, I sang Christmas songs at the top of my lungs with a full heart to an empty house.
That evening I once again headed to my leaders’ home where I met up with the rest of the team after their long days of baking. We sang Christmas carols together and the children re-enacted the Christmas story to the amusement of all involved. We ended the evening at another teammate’s home with tacos- a family tradition for him.
I awoke Christmas morning with only gladness. I felt like I was waking up at home surrounded by people who love me, which, in reality, I was. I immediately went to the kitchen and began more cooking for the day to come. I started chopping onions and soon I was tearing up. Then it happened. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” began playing on my iPod. And I lost it. But just for a minute. I quickly recovered and by the time Melissa showed up to help me carry things to her house I was quite composed and happy.
Since islanders do not celebrate Christmas, as I have already mentioned, I made up my own Christmas greeting in the local language, which roughly translates as “Good Christmas”. I left the house with my jam and delivered it to my neighbors with cheers of “Good Christmas!” to everyone I passed. I also gave Aisha a stocking with her name on it filled with candy. It was so great to give neighbors their very first Christmas gift ever!
For breakfast, Abby made cinnamon rolls- a tradition in her family. With Melissa’s help, I put together my couldn’t-be-more-made-from-scratch lasagna. Eventually, we moseyed back over to Tom and Megan’s house where our teammates eagerly awaited our arrival so we could begin the feast. The spread was quite an amazing feat considering our context. The creativity of my teammates and their hard work was commendable. We had leg of lamp, croquettes (chicken balls- another teammate’s family tradition), sweet potato casserole, potato salad, pasta salad, cookies, brownies, truffles, pineapple dessert and so on. The fifteen of us did not even put a dent in the food!
Following lunch we exchanged our Secret Santa gifts. I received a beautiful black purse, a shawl and a bottle of strawberry milk- which is one of my favorite things to drink here (though I wouldn’t touch milk with a 10 foot pole in the states). After gifts, I was able to FaceTime with my family. Though they did not wait for me to call in order to open presents, which they were supposed to…it was still such an incredible gift to see their faces and hear their voices on Christmas.
My teammates and I spent the afternoon playing games like Apples to Apples and Dutch Blitz and grazing non-stop on the feast. We ended the evening watching The Grinch and Home Alone.
They come from five different states and three countries. They can speak six different languages. They come from five denominations. They have their quarks and oddities. But they are my family. How blessed I am to have a team.
I could not have asked for a better Christmas…
Well, one thing. Our toilet is still broken- that would have been an awesome Christmas present.