Every year at this time of year I battle a sense of grief and a sense of loss….an uncertainty. There’s this accumulation of memories and conventions that no longer communicate.
Round pegs. Square holes.
Although when I was growing up we had a whole collection of traditions none of them now seem to translate. And the fact is even then each year was a little different. Growing up in a small town in the heart of the Punjab province of Pakistan Christmas was as we made it. Mom sifted and stirred. She dipped and dotted, baked and iced cookies, cakes, and squares. She found substitutes for key ingredients and hoarded others that she had saved from trips to the nut and dried fruit market in Murree. She made fruit cake and carrot pudding, steamed pudding and lemon sponge cake. Dad made fudge and special sweet sauces for the puddings. We had to balance and juggle various visits to various villages. Dad preached countless “Burra Din” sermons. We did the village circuit, spending the nights in many of them: village number 443 or village number 5 or Mirpur Chuk were three of our favourites. Mom organized the pageant in each village. She wrapped turbans on wise men, handing fancy wrapped empty boxes of “frankincense, Gold and Myrrh” to the three. She entrusted the doll-baby-Jesus to a chosen Mary in each village. My brother Neil was often one of the shepherds, a thick wool shawl blanket draped around his shoulders. Usually I was the Angel of the Lord. I still have “Durro Muth….” — the Urdu-speaking Angel’s declaration in my head. “Do Not Be Afraid for I bring you good tidings of great joy…”! We handed out white popcorn shaped hard sweets and oranges. The Christmas feast always included sweet rice and chicken curry!
The mission had their Christmas party and that was always a precious gathering. All the “aunts” and “uncles”(all the missionaries from our mission), scattered across the Thal Desert would come together for a celebration of Christ’s birth. More often than not, we would travel in our slightly dilapidated Land Rover jeep, through the desert, across the canals to Auntie Carol’s house in DGK [Dera Ghazi Khan]. There the aunties would compile their baked goodies and savory treats for an enormous spread. I remember as a child being enthralled by the number of yummy options. We would sing carols and exchange presents. The aunts would all exclaim at how we’d grown since they’d last seen us. The uncles would tell stories.
We had a real Auntie and Uncle, my mom’s sister and her husband and their two boys. Every year we tried to squeeze in a Christmas with them too. Those times with true extended family shared in a foreign place felt normal and wonderful. Looking back I can see just how precious and rare that really was.
Our little family– Mom, Dad, my brother Neil and I would have our own little Christmas on yet another day tucked into the Christmas season. Usually, if we kids had anything to say about it, this happened before the rush of the villages. We’d read the Christmas story. We’d go around the circle open one gift at a time. We’d play games. On New Year’s Day, Neil and I, would open our stockings and then later in the day we would make a big dinner for mom and dad.
These were the ways we stretched out the joy, extended the celebration.
But none of that seems to work here.
Later after I grew up and married, my husband and I settled in India. There on that side of the border we created our own Christmas traditions. A week or so before Christmas day we exchanged gifts and goodies with our very close friends on what came to be known as “Feast Night”. The International church commended the Advent readings and candles for the four Sundays of Advent. Often we went together with others in the community and put on a large Christmas program for the community. On Christmas morning we’d open presents with our three children and have a special brunch. I’d bake special Christmas bread and put out bowls of nuts and fruit. Later in the afternoon we’d have our landlord’s family for tea or we’d host an open house for all of our neighbours and friends. In the late afternoon we’d go to the Leper Colony to celebrate with our friends there. We’d visit the residents, deliver food, drink chai, play with the colony’s children and then return home tired and happy.
But very little of that seems to work here either. Because now we live in Kansas.
And we’re forced again to make it up as we go along.
The kids have memories. They seem to make up traditions that I’m not sure we’ve ever really had! We do that? Really? Hmm…ok. But they’re older now and they help. The girls bake cookies. Our son helps decorate. They’ve become generous with each other in their gift giving—which is nothing short of a miracle and very sweet to see. My husband’s family all live here — we really can go “over the river and through the woods” to Grandma’s house. And we do! I’ve watched old Christmas movies, that are a part of everyone else’s Christmas repertoire, for the first time. I’ve learnt a whole new set of Christmas songs that still mystify me (Grandma got run over by a reindeer??).
My own mom and dad and Neil and his family sometimes come to Kansas or we go to where they are. When we’re together Pakistan shows up as we belt out Christmas carols in Urdu or Punjabi. We eat curry and reminisce. We indulge those memories and we laugh and sometimes we cry.
Those other traditions from yesteryear don’t often translate….but I suppose that’s ok. The nostalgia often threatens to choke my joy. I remember and there’s no relevance for many of those memories…there’s no language to begin to articulate those things of the past. Sometimes I try. Sometimes I don’t. I smile. I sip my tea. I dip my cookie.
I’m learning a whole new way of talking Christmas!