Last night we went to our church carol service. It was a wonderful, cosy evening of Christmas celebration. The newly-formed gospel choir sang a number of contemporary gospel songs, intertwined with old favourites that we sang along with them. Each time I sing those well-known carols, I am transported through years and countries to Christmases I have known and loved.
I think of my childhood in Zambia and going to a Christmas party at the sports club in Lusaka. The tall and kind-eyed clown took a keen interest in four-year-old me and kept coming over to chat to me, and ask me if I was having fun. I was always nervous of strangers and my wide eyes stared anxiously up at this plastic-nosed giant. I kind of liked him but wished he would leave me alone. It was only years later that I discovered that that clown was my Dad.
I remember being picked to be Mary in the nativity play at our church in Mazabuka. The boy I’d had a crush on was going to be Joseph; at the very moment he was picked, my crush ended. We had to walk gruellingly arm-in-arm down the aisle to the awaiting nativity scene; I can’t tell you how awkward and uncomfortable I felt with the closeness of the boy I clearly preferred to admire from a distance.
Wherever we lived, church was our constant Christmas Day companion. I loved the carols but can remember longing for the singing to end so we could go home and open our presents and begin the long, exciting day of celebrations. I can remember countless “carols by candlelight” services where I hoped, in equal measure, that I would and wouldn’t set light to the brown paper bag hosting my candle.
My sons’ Christmas concerts in Cape Town were a delight. My younger son made a fleeting first appearance at his play-school concert as an angel. He walked on stage and immediately thought it would be better to observe from the safety of his mother’s lap, so he came down off the stage – in his white slip and silver tinsel halo –and sat on my lap for the rest of the concert.
He watched his older brother play the role of messenger, bringing scrolled news to the people of Israel. Dressed in a plastic shield and very short trousers, my older son recited his part and then began to torment the girl sitting next to him. She had a long, blonde plait and, when she stood up for her moment in the spotlight, he couldn’t resist pulling her plait. She turned round, glared at him and made a fist in his general direction. He couldn’t stop giggling for the rest of the concert. To be honest, nor could we.
That same year, the boy playing the part of the innkeeper was quite overcome after voicing his “no room!” lines. He proceeded to put both hands on his head and pant like a dog until Joseph and Mary found alternative accommodation.
When my younger son was about four years old, he asked me one Christmas evening to play the piano. We went and sat together on the piano stool and I asked him what he wanted me to play. “The piano, Mommy,” he said. I asked him what tune, and he insisted that he just wanted me to play the piano. I suggested I play “Away in a manger”, to which he agreed effusively.
I began to play and he began to sing, at the top of his voice, “We three kings of Orientare!” He clearly just needed accompaniment. Any accompaniment.
Snowy London town today feels a lifetime away from summer-time Christmas in Africa. I kind of love the wintry charm of Christmas in the north, but I would trade anything to celebrate this special holiday with my family. There’s always next year.
Sunshine signing off for today!