The harmattan wind sent gritty sand swirling through the yard as the oppressive heat sent me back to the kitchen to refill our water glasses. “Where’s Son?” I asked Husband who reclined in a rattan chair on the veranda trying to cool himself with a wet rag to the head. He sat up when I offered him the warm glass, then tipped his head toward the store room door which was closed.
Little tappings sounded from inside where our six year old engineer had secreted himself. It was December 24th.
Our son seemed to accept that Christmas was not celebrated in this region of West Africa. No stores beckoned holiday shoppers with colored lights, fake snow, and music blaring words about a white Christmas or decking the halls with holly. No icicle lights blinked from the eaves of our house. There were no fir trees to decorate, no tinsel, Santa Clauses or reindeer. None of that had to do with the real meaning of Christmas anyway, but I admit that while I did not miss the commercialism, I did miss some of my childhood traditions.
A few days earlier, gazing at our sparsely furnished sitting area, I had asked Husband, “Is there something we can do to make our place a little more like…well…like…
“…like Christmas when we were six?” He finished my thought as he peered through the screened window opening at a scene so unlike the winter landscapes we had known.
“What about presents? Son should have something to open on Christmas morning.”
“Maybe we can find something at one of the village shops,” he said.
That’s great for dried fish or a bag of sugar, but certainly not something for a little boy, I thought. I wiped the sweat off my forehead and contemplated our family tradition of hanging stockings on the fireplace.
A short time later, while I was busy kneading dough for sweet bread, I heard the door slam shut. “Here’s our tree!” Husband said, proudly holding up the pathetic remnant of a thorn bush.
“Good start,” I encouraged. “Now if we could just have a fireplace. Not the warmth of it, of course. Just a place to hang our socks.” Wishful thinking in the heart of tropical Africa.
A few days before Christmas, Son fabricated tree decorations from odds and ends he found inside and outside the house. And who knew that Husband would take my wish to heart? He and Son fashioned a large piece of cardboard into a three dimensional fireplace complete with yellow and red paper flames. We hung three white socks and laid a small rag rug in front of it. I placed a red candle and our advent storybook on the mantle. I stepped back and thought, It’s almost perfect.
Christmas morning arrived and I began preparing a simple dinner to share with a Canadian family who lived down the path. Later we would celebrate Christ’s birth with a few of our favorite carols and scripture reading.
Husband called me away from the kitchen to pose the three of us beside our Christmas “tree” in front of our homey cardboard fireplace with its roaring paper flames. After a couple of camera shots, we took turns opening Christmas cards and letters from family and friends a world away. I held back tears. Son opened a package from his grandparents-two hot wheel cars. Next he pulled off the brown wrapping of the gifts we bought from a local shop–a bag of marbles and two giant balloons.
One package remained under the tree. “It’s for all of us!” Son exclaimed, presenting it to us. My husband and I smiled with pride, knowing he had put a lot of time into this special gift.
“Go ahead, you do the honors,” Husband said, placing it in my lap. I lifted the top of the crudely nailed wood box and peeked inside. Amidst wadded up toilet paper, I gently withdrew several clothes pegs dressed with raffia and ribbon. Mary, Joseph, the wise men, an angel.
“It goes like this,” Son said, turning the box on its side and placing the clothes peg people inside what resembled a stable. He left the room and brought back a few small plastic animals, even his rubber Pluto which he added to the scene.
“Thank you,” I said, giving him a big hug.
“But there’s more, Mom.” He plunged his hand into the pile of wadded paper and pulled out the bottom part of a match box. Inside was half of a clothes peg swaddled with a tiny blue cloth. “Baby Jesus in a manger,” he said, setting Jesus between Mary and Joseph. The scene was now complete. We marveled.
What a remarkable gift!
The babe, that is. Emmanu-el, God with us. God incarnate. Redeemer.
That is why we had come. To bring this good news to people who had never heard the wonderful message of salvation through Jesus Christ.
On that hot, humid December morn the message of Christmas rang strong and true. Our completeness is in Christ alone.
Our Living Hope!
Afterthought: Son kept the cardboard fireplace in his bedroom for most of the next year, but the memory of that Christmas will linger forever.