Ghosts of Christmas past

Four candles flicker through my small hut. Outside a thunderstorm rolls, a blessing of rain for local crops, but inside Christmas music drains out the clashes of thunder. My eyes are still damp from a viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – although my favorite movie of all time, it’s the first time I’ve watched it in three years – and my wanders to ghosts of Christmas past.

A student in college, finishing up papers or putting off studying for that last final with Christmas music and dreams of the perfect holiday. I go to the on-campus convenience store to buy three bottles of ketchup, a gag gift for my friends. As soon as my last final is handed in, I pack up my small car and make the journey home on Highway 14. I listen to Christmas music, thinking about all the college-related stress I get to break from, and the festive lights along the highway point me west.

The 5 p.m. mass at St. Peters and Paul is now finished and us little ones are anxious for gifts. But my father, displaying hints of nostalgia that I will eventually grow into, drive around town to see the different lights. There is Candy Cane lane and the house in Fort Pierre with floodlights highlighting every festive symbol.

My first Christmas away from home but in the Sahara desert in a Muslim country I hardly recognized the time of year. Still, we do our best to find the holiday spirit. Sara makes stockings for each person and Audrey and I plan out the perfect Christmas meal. We spend the day watching movies, listening to festive music and cooking. When it is time to eat, we all sit around and smile up from our plates. I may be away from home but I am still surrounded by family.

It was a dress up party, my friend Melissa and I claimed. We put out an array of appetizers and wine as our friends piled into my cramp apartment, sporting suits and dresses. The party paused for the unveiling of a Christmas album, “Welcome Home Mittens,” a portrayal of holiday classics in my friends’ best muppet voices. Listening to it now, thousands of miles for those people, tears form.

Christmases in Aberdeen always mean two church services – one at the Catholic church with my father’s family and then another at my mother’s childhood Baptist church. We return to the Grenz house for a little opening of presents and after my grandfather insists on singing Christmas carols. In the kitchen an array of cookies and chocolate covered pretzels await our sticky hands. We wake up the next morning we see that Santa got the memo to deliver presents to Aberdeen instead of Pierre. We were worried, but Santa always knows.

The Daktronics Christmas party was the highlight of the year, one of major perks in working there. My boss, only a few years older than I, gives me a gift card to a bar, Skinners, and I can’t think of a better present. The marketing students arrive at the Swiftel Center together, decked in holiday gear. We eat the meal and then leave to spend my Christmas present.

We are not allowed in my grandpa’s workroom, but I go in anyway. There is a giant house in there and it puzzles me, but I don’t ask questions, in fear of getting trouble for snooping. A few days later, on Christmas Eve, my mother instructs me to go downstairs to grandpa’s workroom. He is smiling behind the giant house, saying that it is mine. It is painted pink, my favorite color, and is furnished with a couch, bed and dining room set he built himself and my grandmother sewed the curtains and bedding. It wasn’t the plastic Barbie dollhouse I put on my list, but at the time I couldn’t understand the love behind such a gift. It still sits in my bedroom, waiting for a daughter of my own to play with it.

The kids living in the mountains missed their bus the day before and are arriving late on Christmas Eve. The meal is ready and we are to pick them up at the taxi. We are all still new to Lesotho but want to make this a special Christmas. The greeting group has candles and we begin singing “Silent Night.” They have been on a crowded taxi for hours and are hungry and tired, but when they see us they melt. They’ve found their family.

Nothing brings me joy these days and Christmas feels like more of a hassle than anything else. A storm is coming, but I am able to leave a day earlier for Pierre and work from a coffee shop. The snow starts and making the six-block journey to church is a struggle but we do it. It always feels weird to be back home, seeing faces from the past. When we come home, the chili is ready and we feast on our usual Christmas eve dinner: chili Fritos with sour cream and shredded cheese. After years of losing, I allow my brothers to have the main television to watch some college game but they must give it to me at around 9:30. My mother and I sit by the fire, drink hot chocolate and watch the last 20 minutes of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” my personal traditions. Hope returns to my heart as George Bailey runs through Bedford Falls full of life and love. We each open a present and then it is time for bed. The door barely opens the next morning and our guests cancel for the day. I don’t bother changing out of my clothes as we open gifts and cook up a feast. We watch movies and even play a board game. Just the five of us. I knew it my heart and they refused to acknowledge it. It was the last Christmas we would have together for three years. It was the best one I had in years. We were all happy.

My third African Christmas and I long for home more than ever before. But these summer holidays with second families will eventually be cherished memories when I can again indulge in the hype of Christmas. Till then, I remember my blessings and give thanks for the amazing life I am allowed to lead.

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2 thoughts on “Ghosts of Christmas past

  1. Happy Christmas, Heather!!! Thanks for a very poignant and beautiful post. I just found out that the Sesotho kids books I ordered for your school are not in fact going to be delivered. The book shop just refunded me and said they no longer do Sesotho books :-(
    I’ll try to get something out to you in the new year! Hugs, Wendy

    • Oh, Wendy, you are so sweet to think of my students and even attempt to find Sesotho books. I hope that things are going well for you in the UK and best wishes for the new year!

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