So Christmas day has come and gone but the season of jolly goodness is yet to expire...well 2 more days. All the long months of preparation, shopping, cooking, wrapping presents, work parties, Santa Claus visits for the kids, months of peace for the parents when the Santa Claus threat worked: (the ‘if you don’t behave Santa wont fill your stocking).
A couple of days before Xmas, I was visiting with my friend and her family. Amidst dinner preparations she squeezed in some Christmas baking. There was the mince pies which is quite easy to make. I’ve blogged about my love for mincepies before. She was also preparing ingredients for the traditional Xmas cake which she planned to bake overnight (8hrs). This included soaking the dried fruits - which make up 75% of the cake batter - in brandy at least 12hrs before use (she soaked hers for 12 minutes). She confessed that traditionally the Xmas cake is baked months before Xmas..infact sometimes a year before!! I called her modified recipe the 'time waits for no-one Xmas cake' recipe.
She was also going to make Xmas puddings the next day, this was the traditional Xmas dessert. She said that the Christmas menu was a tradition handed down to her by her gran which she hoped to hand down to her daughters. The eldest daughter had been summarily summoned to the kitchen to help mix the batter :).
The pudding is so rich in alcohol that it is usually ignited before serving.
Other food in the traditional Xmas menu are the roast turkey/geese eaten with vegatbles, brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, cranberry sauce, rich nutty stuffing, tiny sausages wrapped in bacon (pigs in a blanket) and hot gravy.
In the midst of the stories, she asks me what Christmas traditions we have in Nigeria. Hmmmm.
First off, I thought of the traditions we had in common which includes the activities that occur in the weeks before Xmas – the carol services (songs are sang in English and in local dialects, the exchange of cards, end of year work parties/xmas parties, nativity plays in schools, putting up of Xmas trees and decorations (while homes vie to have the best decorations in the West, in Nigeria the competition is left to commercial offices).
Then I remembered those particular to us.
Shopping for new dresses and shoes. Most kids in Nigeria are guaranteed two new outfits at Christmas time. the one worn on Christmas and New Year days respectively. Many a Christmas eve I would be found late in the evening in the market with my big sister trying to find news that fit my too long feet. There was no leaving of that market for me till i get my shoe!!
Travelling: Christmas isnt complete without travelling in Nigeria. The people of the Eastern part of Nigeria - where I come from - have a long standing tradition of spending the Xmas holidays in their home towns. We are the most travelled Nigerian tribe (anecdotally it is said that if you get to any town in Nigeria and you don’t find an Igbo person there ..then you should flee cos that town is a ghost town). So for the Ibos, the Xmas holidays is the time when all the sons and daughters in diaspora come back home. To reunite with kith and kin and peers. To flaunt new tokens of success (cars, phones, newly built mansions, etc). It is also a sort of coming out period for the single men and ladies. You know I aint lying :).
Red Christmas - While my western friend dreams of a white Christmas, we have a cold, dusty red one. Red from the wind blowing up the clayey soil which is found in the Eastern parts of Nigeria. After the long travel down to the village 3-9 hrs depending on what part of Nigeria you are coming from, vehicles usually have a thick layer of red dust. The passengers rarely escape this dust coating even if your windows were wound up during the drive. Somehow it just filters in. The green foliage also turn red cause of the dust. White outfits are only worn by the brave. Dusting the house? A twice daily affair. The cold dry air also ensures that lip balms and Vaseline intensive cream are constant companions during the Xmas Season.
The Food: Rice is a staple food in Nigeria eaten in most homes at least every other day..yet there is something special about Xmas rice. Be it jollof or fried or rice and stew. It always magically tastes nicer.
There is also a lot of meat eaten during the festivities. Families may buy a cow or share it with another family, goats (sorry NGIP), chicken and more recently turkeys are present at tables. Well fried or stewed.
Drinks were in abundance. Fizzy Coca brands, Juice, Malt drinks Wine, Beer. As a kid, it was only during Xmas you had unlimited access to drinks from the fridge and freezer.
Church: Midnight mass is usually wonderful. Most times the actual mass is over around 11pm, but cause it isn’t midnight yet, the congregation chill in church singing hymns and choruses to welcome the baby Jesus at midnight.
Fireworks: Come 1st of December, people start buying their stash of fireworks for the Xmas. Proper firework displays while common in cities like Lagos, are still a rarity in the villages cos of safety issues, handling and the expense. What is commonly found is the banger which isnt exactly safer. A description of Salute shells in Wikipedia here fits what we call knockout : A shell intended to produce a loud report rather than a visual effect.
My favourite was the sparklers. Anyway the bangers get their 2 minutes of fame from 10pm Xmas eve reaching a crescendo at midnight (Xmas day). Then dangerous part begins - the throwing. The thrower usually strikes the cylindrical shells against a matchbox and throws them as far as possible from him/herself but the naughtier revellers deliberately threw them at people’s feet. Or worse bodies. Their usual victims were those returning from Xmas midnight service. The air becomes rent with bangs, screaming girls and running feet. It was crazy, dangerous and ..... fun. I doubt that those who have burn scars will agree with me.
Entertainment: There are traditional marriages to attend, the launch of a new dance by particular women/men groups, Churches also hold their bazaar and harvest sales then too cause they are guaranteed to make money off their 'August visitors'.
Up to a decade ago, Masquerades were also part and parcel of the Xmas celebrations. The masks were usually worn by a particular sect/family. Some masquerades danced for money, some just wanted to display their costume. Some (ie. Nwaulaga) flogs anybody who dares to stand in his presence. Fleeing from Nwaulaga was the bane of my childhood existence during the Xmas holidays. I got flogged twice :(
Little Terrors: The most interesting thing about Xmas day is that I rarely dined at home. Rather I'd dress up in my new fineries and together with my cousins, start a busy day of personal fundraising (gbaara m christmas) - the best part of Xmas!!
Its like this, on Xmas day, I dress up in my new finery and with my group of friends (usually cousins) we visit our Aunties, Uncles, Family friends, etc. At each house the Ma and Pa "Uh oh" over how much we’ve grown since they last saw us, ask after our parents and even give us some message to relay back to them (no cellphone dem days!). The ever ubiquitous rice is served, fizzy drinks, biscuits. The richer families also served chin-chin and cake. After eating, we thank them prettily and signal our intention to leave, at which the father/mother of the house hands out money to us kids. Over the years (7yrs-13yrs) we knew the homes who cooked the best rice, gave the best financial reward or who entertained least.
My mom was the chin-chin and cake type entertainer ..lol (not cause we were rich..she just felt it was less messy). She was also known for giving out brand new Naira notes to her little guests (notes deliberately obtained from the bank prior to travel).
In retrospect, we must have been little terrors, unrelenting in our gbaara m christmas quest, accosting our older single cousins at pubs, along the road until they gave in and dipped into their wallet. For the guys it was best to harass them when they had their friends with them.
At the end of the day, heaving from exertion and too much food, my cousins and I will climb atop the roof of this uncompleted house in the compound to share our loot. Woot! Woot!
I remember that those days our parents rarely asked us where we were going to or when we'll be back - we were 8yr olds!! Curfews cease to exist in the village. I guess they were safe in the knowledge that we were surrounded by kith and kin. I'd come back home at 12 midnight and my dad doesn’t raise an eyebrow assuming I was at my cousins. Well, I was usually :p
The Xmas eating, drinking and fundraising continues till the New year. By the 2nd of January, like magic the village empties as people return to the cities whence they came. By the 5th day, the villages become ghost towns again inhabited by the aged and retirees.
Christmas celebrations have changed in the last decade. The food and church service remain the same but visitations are greatly reduced with kids properly chaperoned (the spate of kidnappings in villages and an increased belief in juju/voodoo amongst Christian folk isnt helping matters). Many families don’t even travel home for Xmas any more becos of beliefs that something evil might befall them cos of scheming/jealous kith and kin. The masquerades are also a thing of the past as Christian societies deemed them demonic and urged for their ban.
A shame really.
My family still travels home for Xmas. Dad is a die-hard traditionalist who has never spent the Xmas holiday outside his hometown, to please him, we the kids have to keep making that effort to come home for Xmas. Nowadays I too, like my mom, fill my purse with mint naira notes to give out to my younger cousins :)
In the end, be it roast turkey and pudding or Jollof rice or Tortellini in brodo (Italy), la reveillon (France), Hogmanay(Scotland) …the key ingredients of the Christmas celebrations around the world are Christ, love and sharing. I pray we never loose sight of that.
May Charity, Hope and Love make their home in your heart this New Year!!