This post is a column I wrote for The Capital Journal.
It was a quarter to 6 a.m. in Lesotho, nearly 10 p.m. central standard time, when my mother called me from a holiday party. She held the phone up so that the attendees could wish me a Merry Christmas.
I hung up the phone and imagined trees glistening with colored lights and sparkling ornaments. I pictured the wrapped packages under the tree and endless carols floating through the room. I thought about the array of festive food they were snacking on as old friends gathered to celebrate the year and be with each other. Those holiday traditions feel so far away here in Lesotho.
This is my third consecutive Christmas in Africa (second in Lesotho, with the first being in Niger where I was a volunteer for a brief time) and I can barely remember the hype and glitz of the holiday season in the U.S. For me, many of my volunteer friends and likely anyone who lives abroad, this is the hardest time of the year to be away. It is when we are most vulnerable to the pain of missing home.
It is summer in the southern hemisphere with hot days and rainy nights. The brilliant green grass and piercing blue sky are a stark opposite of the white Christmases of South Dakota. With the exception of my determination to constantly play festive music, it doesn’t feel like Christmas. Not like the ones I used to know.
Majority of Basotho are Christian and celebrate Jesus’ birth like anyone else in the faith. They buy new outfits for church and plan a great feast. My host mother is part of Christmas society that collects dues throughout the year and then buys grocery items in bulk, which are for the main meal but also lasts several months, for participating families in the village.
At the water tap one morning, I asked my host sister and a neighbor girl about Christmas, trying to decipher the main differences between their version and ours. My host sister said, after church, they spend the day eating and chilling, sometimes buying drinks for each other. The other girl told me she likes Christmas because, “Everyone is happy.”
Although I’ve told myself Christmas is so different here, the things that really matter – faith, family and food – don’t change across oceans and cultures. Without trees, carols, parties, gifts and all the other things that go along with holidays at home, it’s easy to assume Christmas isn’t here. Actually, Christmas is here in its purest form and there is something divine about that.
On Christmas I will be with my adopted volunteer family, cooking festive treats and a hearty meal. I will step away from it all for a phone call with my parents, brothers and sister-in-law. I will say a prayer and read the story of Christmas in my Bible. I will have Christmas in every way that it is meant to be celebrated. It may be different from those at home but, as long as I have good people and food and the reason for the season in my heart, wherever I am, the magic of Christmas is present.