Celebrating holidays in a foreign country is always special. For example, Thanksgiving is always in adventure in finding the right food and sharing this American holiday with locals. Christmas is a wonderful holiday to celebrate abroad because each country has it's own special traditions, but the center of the holiday remains the same. Here in Congo, I had a wonderful experience for my first Christmas.
First, of course, is the weather. Even though I spent last Christmas in Guam basking in the 80 degrees heat and humidity, I still am not used to the idea of Christmas being so WARM. Everything feels different, even the traditional music sounds different (maybe because they sing in Lingala here...). Another major difference here is the lack of twinkly Christmas lights. Or any lights at all. On "store" at the market had some tinsel and a small Christmas tree and the nuns went all out at the convent with Christmas decorations, but other than that, there is very little in the Christmas decoration vein. But still it is Christmas, and a beautiful one at that.
Sr. Angela (the VOICA director) and Diggy (a VOICA volunteer at the office in Rome) came to visit us to see how the Congo volunteer site is set up and their visit just happened to coincide with Christmas. It was actually very nice to have these visitors because it added to the holiday air...and they came laden with gifts from Rome (including nutella!!).
Christmas Eve started bright and early with me mixing up a tasty batch of Brownies to bring to the sisters for Christmas day. I had to bake them bright and early so they could be put in the oven at 7:30 am. Why the early baking hour, you ask? Well, we don't actually have an oven, so we rely on the kindness of the bakery for our baked goods. And the best time to bake in an over that is busy with bread all day is before it's busy with bread all day. And that is at 7:30. I dropped off the brownies with the baker to be magically baked and went on my merry way. Everyone went about their business with a jolly air saying "bon fete" left and right. Everything closed early too so we had the afternoon to cook and prepare for our Christmas Eve feast. We all (and by we all, I mean practically all of Aru) attended "midnight" mass at 7 pm. It went on for about 2 hours and included copious singing and dancing. The altar servers did a jaunty little jig during the gloria and kept of the dancing for most of the service. At the end of mass, the entire church erupted into a joyful dance hall with people dancing in the aisles. We danced our way out the doors and over to the convent where there was even more joyful dancing and singing. Eventually we made our way back to the volunteer house where Lydia, Tomas, Diggy, and Sr. Angela enjoyed our feast (including my family specialty of Grandma noodlies, brought all the way from Denver). We really went crazy for the feast and made some instant chocolate pudding adorned with the edges of brownies I couldn't get out of the pan in one piece (apparently making brownies in industrial bread ovens requires some finesse). Since it was a holiday, we also sampled some of the local beer. As for how the beer tastes, think keystone light, but not as good. The water, I mean beer, was made up for by the rest of the feast, especially our brownie-pudding, and the good company with which it was enjoyed. After our feast we followed a more European tradition and opened presents beneath our tiny Christmas tree. By the time we were finished it was nigh on midnight, by far the latest I have ever stayed up in Congo!! So we went to bed, but of course we were not expecting Santa to come because we don't have a chimney or cookies (although we did have some floppy carrots for the reindeer).
Christmas morning dawned bright and early and thoroughly enjoyed sleeping in past 8 (o, goodness, what's wrong with me, I can't believe I'm excited to sleep in past 8! 8! I used to cry when I had to be up by 8 and now I WISH I could sleep so late every day!!) Well, anyway, I slept past 8 and then we had a community breakfast of pancakes. Although, as it turns out, leavening IS an important ingredient for pancakes, so we had crepes. Which were quite tasty if not quite so fluffy and not quite so good at absorbing our precious Aunt Jemima syrup.
Lydia and I brought a local girl with hydrocephalus to mass at 10 so she could participate in the Christmas festivities. And as a side note, it is not unusual at all to attend mass twice on Christmas. In fact, most people who went on Christmas eve went to the 7 am mass as well. In typical African fashion, we were about 20 minutes to late, but no worries, we didn't even miss the opening prayer. After mass we headed over to a big party with both the communities of sisters. The feast included rabbit, fish, potatoes, legitimate American catcup, a number of other vegetables, cake, and of course, some tasty brownies. After dinner Sr. Annemarie started the stereo up for some dancing. And when Sr. Annemarie starts the dancing, you better gear up to be there for awhile because she can dance all day and all night long. After our dancing it was time for Christmas nap. Then back to the sisters for more eating, more cake, and a little more dancing. After a strenuous day of sleeping, eating, dancing, sleeping, eating, and dancing I was ready for bed.
Sharing this Christmas with my new community, both VOICA and the sisters, was really wonderful. Everyone was filled with joy and celebration- I didn't even attend 7 am mass where I told the dancing was even more exuberant than at the vigil. It was a day to really enjoy both the communities I feel so blessed to be a part of. It was difficult to be so far away from home and I missed all the my Christmas traditions with my family, but I also discovered the joy of participating in the traditions of others.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!!