Do you have one Christmas past that stands out from all the others? My son and daughter say the happiest Christmas they ever had was the one when they were seven and eleven years old — Christmas of 1977. At the time, we were living in Tukuyu, a sleepy little town located on top of a dormant volcano in the southern highlands of Tanzania. Obviously, our lifestyle was not that of a typical American family. The children grew up in Africa with only periodic visits back to the states. I was often amazed by the contrast in their behavior when they switched continents. In Africa, they were thrilled with any gifts they received. But, in the states, when exposed to the onslaught of advertisements, their innocent fascination and wonderment quickly slid into well-argued expectations.
Our family’s 1977 began in Ethiopia. That country was in the throws of a Marxist revolution and a devastating famine. In April, the government expelled official Americans and remaining others were regularly called CIA agents on the nationalized radio station. Our withdrawal came in June and necessitated leaving all our household goods. Our worldly possessions diminished to the contents of our suitcases. Hoping for a change in Ethiopia, the four of us spent the next three months living in one room at a conference center outside of Nairobi, Kenya. Then, we agreed to a one-year feasibility study in Tukuyu. Tanzania was an impoverished country that offered nothing in the way of luxuries. In fact, due to a dispute with Kenya, the border had been closed, blocking off the source of many items westerners considered essential, such as sugar, flour, toilet paper and cooking oil. Corruption was rampant and was fueled by great physical needs and the decline of the socialist government’s failing relocation plan. Postal conditions were also lacking. Only letters could possibly be sent or received, never tapes or packages.
To reach the little isolated community we drove inland thirteen hours in a rickety land rover from the coastal city of Dar-es-Salaam. We arrived at dusk, which was particularly meaningful to us because we did not have any headlights. Our sparsely furnished house was framed by breathtaking natural scenery. Centered outside the kitchen window was beautiful Mt. Rungwa. Out the front door stretched a long valley leading to the distant jagged Livingston Mountains looming north of the shores of Lake Nyasa that stretched as far as the eye could see. The abundance, however, was limited to the beautiful landscape. The market had a very narrow selection of fruits and vegetables. Meat was even more scarce and arrived only occasionally at the market in a wheelbarrow. It was axed out by the kilo so you could easily obtain stomach and filet mignon in the same hack. A trip to the only dry goods store in town, Patel’s, was also a rapid reminder of the scarcity of goods. By the time December rolled around, it was obvious that Christmas was going to have a different slant that year.
One day as the children were playing, they spied some hemlock cones on the ground. They combed the area and gathered all they could find. With string and paraffin from Patel’s and crayons from their limited supply, these items were converted into colorfully decorated Christmas candles for our friends. Then, each of us toiled in secret to make gifts for the other family members. My daughter labored for hours to make me an accurate calendar for the next year with her own handcrafted pictures for each month. My son gave me a trivet made from a square piece of leather. He designed it by holding different size nails in various places on the leather and hitting it with a hammer. Each child secretly crafted a growing stick for the other from a strip of leather using the same hammer/nail design technique. Their dad made each of them rope ladders. I made outfits from army camouflage material. And so, the gifts went.
Christmas night as I tucked my son into bed, he snuggled down under his blanket and said, “Mom, do you know that song that says – something – something — all your dreams come true?” I smiled and nodded as he continued, “That’s the way I feel tonight!” I knew exactly how he felt but, at the time, I didn’t know why.
I have often thought back to that Christmas, especially at later ones in the states when greedy desires could not possibly be met. However, our happiness that year was not from the lack of commercialism or from the fact that we made the gifts ourselves. Sacrifice was also not the essential ingredient. Even the adversity of that year was not instrumental in providing such a lasting memory. The answer, I believe, lies in our focus. We anticipated receiving nothing because no gifts were available to buy and no gifts could be sent to us through the mail. As a result, our attention was totally concentrated on what we could create that would express our love to those around us. To that mission of giving, we committed all we had at our disposal physically, mentally and spiritually. And now, we can look back and know that — for one fleeting season — we truly caught a glimpse of the real meaning of Christmas.