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That’s Christmas To Me

Image: Photo © Robin Emery

Author: Robin Emery

That’s Christmas To Me

One evening in early December, I was there on a pile of red dirt appreciating the last rays of orange sunlight bouncing off the still water. As I sat by the lake I threw a small pebble into it, there was just enough light to see ripples spreading rapidly on its surface. And then all went black because night comes fast on the equator. I was left in the darkness of a December night in Kenya. I was wearing a tank top and no shoes. Days are becoming hotter and hotter here. And it is now early December, which means it is soon 2015, and even sooner it will be Christmas. That is when I realized that I had not yet thought about Christmas.

Almost four months ago, I started performing (yep, that word) my Swiss “Service Civil” in an orphanage in western-Kenya and I will spend Christmas here. There are two seasons in Kenya: winter and summer. December is the beginning of summer so it does not snow here on Christmas Eve. Actually, it never snows here. Instead, Christmas takes place halfway through the biggest yearly drought and its oppressive temperatures.

When I first read the e-mail inviting English students to write a text for the “muse” magazine, I was thrilled. I wanted to write about my time in Kenya. However, partly through the message I read “we do encourage you to relate your texts to Christmas or winter season” and I felt sad because where I am, I will live through no ordinary winter and my Christmas will certainly be very different from what I always knew. Well, exactly! I will neither have an ordinary winter nor an ordinary Christmas.

Having that in mind, I began thinking of Christmas and ideas related to it. Whoever is reading this would have the concept of Christmas match others such as “family”, “friends”, “presents”, “generosity”, “songs”, “the cold”, “snow”, “a big fat dinner”, “short days”, “long nights”, “coziness in a chalet”, “the warmth of a wood fire”, “skiing”, “what comes just after essay deadlines”, “what comes just before new year’s eve”, and this could go on for a ridiculously long time. In any case: not drought, sunburns and flip-flops.

So I started wondering whether all collocates for the word “Christmas” in Kenya are really diametrically opposed to ours. But nobody wants to read about a corpus-based search here, hunh. Instead, let’s browse through various thoughts and events that came about in my life here concerning Christmas-related topics.

Snow. “You know, in my country in December sometimes I look out of my window in the morning and where normally there are colors there are none. All is white because it snowed during the night and I cannot use my car anymore until a powerful machine comes and pushes snow away and then there are walls of snow on both sides of the road and the road is slippery. Everything is ice-cold”. When I said those words the kids were staring at me with that concentrated mouth-half-open gaze they have when a magic trick is being executed in front of them. Most of them only saw snow once on a postcard of Mount Kenya.

“But” one of them asks, “can you even walk around outside when it is so cold?” – “Not really, we try staying inside most of the time” – “So… why do you live there in the first place?” Good question. – “Well, when there is snow I go up one of the many mountains not far from home and I go skiing!” – “Go what?” That was the beginning of a loooong talk.

Short days & long nights. I spent every single one of my twenty-two winters in Switzerland. Every time Christmas was approaching it was the same story. Days grew shorter and shorter while the atmosphere and the people became increasingly cold. Depression due to lack of light, the endless waiting for the 24th to open presents and the famous sentence voiced by skiers “at least some snow could fall and make the cold worth bearing!” were all part of the picture. Every year. Not this year.

The orphanage is smack on the equator and on the equator the sun unvaryingly rises between 6:30 and 7AM and sets between 6:30 and 7PM. It is so consistent that there is no need for the hour change we have in Europe, and time is counted differently: hour zero of a day for people here is our 6AM; hence our 9AM is their 3AM. “It’s logical! You wake up at dawn, and when you were up for three hours, you are three hours into the morning: it’s 3AM”!

The days are never longer or shorter, the curfew for children never changes. Days pass by so swiftly that to keep up with a countdown until the 24th would be absurd. I live amidst many smiles and there is no objective reason to be depressed. The only genuine parameter to consider while organizing my days here is whether there is rain or not. And in December there is no rain, in December there is only sun.

The warmth of a wood fire. In Switzerland, I make a wood fire when my chalet’s heating system is out, which seldom happens. In other cases, a wood fire merely intensifies the cozy atmosphere in a room when you have family or friends over or when you are alone with The New Yorker or Paradise Lost in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, right? Just writing this overwhelms me with this romantic feeling.

A wood fire has a different effect on me now because in the orphanage one makes wood fire every day. Why? To cook. So, “go fetch firewood or else you’ll not eat” says the cook. That’s maybe as close to “pragmatic” and as far from “romantic” as one can get.

Generosity. “When I set the table, I always keep two spare plates in a corner of the table in case someone walks in while we are eating. We never count how much food we make, since we do not know how many people will eat at our table. It is in our culture,” says Lilian, a friend of mine who teaches French in a neighboring village. – “So, do people often walk in and eat with you?” – “Almost never, she answers, but when it happens we have enough food for them”. That is what I call widespread generosity. Just imagine! It is a cultural trend to expect unexpected guests! In contrast, I suppose in Switzerland we are bad at expecting the unexpected…

Generosity is supposed to be a primitive human drive (debate: open) and constitutes a fundamental pillar to a healthy society. Cynically, one could argue that in common Western customs Christmas is the time of the year to be generous and to offer presents. In our collective unconsciousness, the social representation of “generosity” was taken hostage by Christmas! But it’s practical: there is that small time of the year where one is prompted to burst into flamboyant and ostentatious acts of generosity, and then it’s done. The rest of the year, just go back to work or whatever you do for your living.

I am very crude because I consider generosity to be as diffuse as foucaldian power, underlying every word uttered and gesture enacted and to be as quintessential to human understanding as language itself. I see generosity as the tangible part of love, as the emergence through which love arises in humanly perceptible stimuli, and because love is everywhere, generosity is everywhere. Somehow, it is. Generosity is everywhere, always, not only on Christmas Eve. That is why I like the yearlong extra-plate policy here.

Music. In the orphanage the music I hear is nearly always terrible wannabe-American noise from the Kenyan radio. Sometimes children sing, and other times I hear sophisticated phones ringing: Lil Wayne, Sean Paul or Akon. But yesterday everything changed when I heard the polyphonic ringtone of our cook Maureen’s Sony Ericson playing “I Wish You A Merry Christmas”! And I thought of Christmas once more and I laughed and I sang along and Maureen answered the phone and the ringtone stopped so I was singing alone and I stopped singing. She looked at me astonished and after she hung up she asked me how I knew the lyrics to her ringtone. I answered that we have the same Christmas songs at home. Se was puzzled, but I finally found out how I will connect with my habitual Christmases: through music!

Apart from singing, there will be a big party and a big fat dinner and love and new friends and presents and a Christmas tree. But so far from home it will still be very different. You know, neither better nor worse, just different. It will come fast enough, because time flies here. So many teeming thoughts this evening may have kept me away from producing a straightforward account of anything. However, there is a baseline to it, and it addresses all readers: Merry Christmas!

And a happy new year

With love,

Sent from Kenya