I’ve never thought of Christmas as something to be survived until this year. The wonderful news is that I survived my first Christmas away from home! Amazing! If I can survive that, I can survive anything! Even more amazing is the fact that my Christmas was almost completely merry and joyful!
I’ll start with Christmas Eve. I had to do some last minute Christmas shopping, so I went by myself to the Madina market. As I sat crammed in the back of the trotro on the way there, all I could think of was that I was probably the only one of my family and friends who was doing her Christmas Eve shopping at an African street market. This would be my only Christmas in Africa. I might as well embrace it and make the most of it!
As the day turned to evening, I suddenly became very excited with that overwhelming Christmas Eve anticipation I’ve experienced every December 24th since 1986. I danced around the hallway humming “Here Comes Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” calculating that he was probably somewhere in Asia at the time, until we all piled into the car to go to church.
At eight o’clock, there was a Christmas Eve service at the local church which started with a little Christmas play put on by the Sunday school kids. It was cute, except the girl who sang the Christmas songs could not sing. It was like listening to a bad American Idol audition... but since I love Christmas songs in every circumstance, I didn’t mind. One of the wisemen was played one of my favorite students, Kelvin from class five. He’s really smart and well-behaved, but what I love about him is that he has the best dimples, so I always smile at him at school just to see his dimples when he smiles back. After the play, he sat behind me during mass, and everytime I looked back and saw his adorably dimpled smile, I was so happy.
I didn’t expect to enjoy Christmas Eve, but something mysterious happened during the church service, and I was just filled with so much joy. I can't explain it. Even though I was thousands of miles away from everything I knew and missing my family and friends, I couldn’t help but be completely overjoyed. It was Christmas Eve, after all. I sang and danced, as exuberant as everyone else, remembering the real reason for the holidays.
When church ended, seven ladies piled into the Rav4. As I squished in the back seat with three nuns, I laughed at the irony of my situation. I sat there, crammed between the door handle and a nun, watching Sister Dorothy dancing in the front seat to “Kung Fu Fighting” on the radio with Hannah on her lap as the car bounced along bumpy dirt roads, and realized that I will never forget this night. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear “Kung Fu Fighting” again without remembering my Christmas Eve in Ghana.
When we returned to the house, I burst through the doors, dancing the whole time and singing Christmas carols. I picked up my cell phone and saw that I had five missed calls from my family, so I called them back, ridiculously happy to talk to them. I literally danced around the house the whole time I was on the phone. When I had finished talking, I went to the parlor, where the rest of my housemates sat around eating and drinking next to the Christmas tree. I joined them, snacking on pancakes and Almond Joys while sipping some hot wine, until midnight. Merry Christmas! They passed out the presents, and mine was a lovely piece of local African-print cloth for me to make a dress. We stayed up late, way past my bedtime, and when I had snuck downstairs to hide two presents from Santa Claus under the tree, it was 1:15 in the morning. I haven’t stayed up past midnight since I’ve been in Ghana, but it felt so wonderfully normal to be up late.
When I woke up on Christmas morning, I jumped out of bed right away, knowing if I stayed in bed to dwell on the fact that I was alone, I’d be too sad, and I didn’t want that. We had fried eggs and toast for breakfast, and when we had finished, I went upstairs to get ready for my day at Osu Children’s Home!
When I arrived at the children’s home, I was directed to the babies unit. I spent Christmas morning holding and loving the little orphaned and abandoned babies. What a very special way to spend my Christmas morning! Jesus came to earth approximately 2008 years ago as a little baby just like them! The difference was that Jesus’ parents were so happy to see him, I’m sure. They loved him and would never have abandoned him. He was such a lucky kid.
As I held the babies in my arms, I realized that for many of them, this was their first Christmas. Their mothers should doting over them, dressing them up, taking pictures of them, giving them presents, just loving them. Instead, these babies are spending their first Christmas abandoned, squished in a crib with one or two other babies in a place where no one notices when they cry, where they are fed and bathed on an assembly line, then dropped into their cribs until their next feeding time. It was really sad... but I felt the most sorry for the babies’ mothers. The mothers must be going through something terrible to have to give up their babies like they did. If the babies are better off at the children’s home than with their mothers... those poor women! It makes me understand why some women have abortions, although abortion wasn't really an option for these babies' moms (it's still illegal in Ghana). I loved the babies as best I could, smiling at them, holding them, rocking them, wishing that Santa Claus could bring them parents for Christmas. If I could have taken one of those babies home that very day, I would have... but I know that I'm in no way ready to be a mother just yet.
Once the babies were put down for their naps, I went to see what the other children were up to. It turns out that Father Christmas had come, and he was handing out presents to the children! He had a pile of toys on the ground, and the children came up one by one and picked out a toy. I was really happy to see that they had presents. They excitedly showed me their toys... stuffed animals and baby dolls and toy cars and lego sets and Barbie dolls. It reminded me of my childhood, of the countless Barbie dolls I’ve received for Christmas in the past. I congratulated the girls on their dolls that were so beautiful, just like them.
After Santa Claus left, I hung out with the kids for a little while until the party started. Some people had brought in huge speakers, and a DJ was spinning a type of upbeat Ghanaian music called hiplife. Some very kind, generous people had brought drinks and special food - fried yams, with a choice of chicken or fish - and I helped serve it to the kids. A couple of the kids became attached to me and followed me around everywhere I went. They were so adorable! I hung out with the kids, playing with them, dancing with them, having a really good time! I was enjoying myself so much, completely amazed by how happy I was!
My Christmas was quite merry, until I made the fatal mistake of looking at the time and doing the math... it was Christmas morning in California. My whole family would be gathered around the Christmas tree, without me. I was suddenly filled with a deep sadness and loneliness. I looked at all the kids, and I realized that however lonely I felt, they must be feeling a thousand times lonelier. There were so many kids there, around 200, being cared for by temporary volunteers and people who were paid... no one at the orphanage could truly love these kids the way they deserve to be loved, they way their mother or father could have loved them. I tried not to think about it, but the sadness became so heavy that couldn’t stay any longer.
As I walked toward the main street to look for a trotro, I pulled out my iPod. The first song that came on was “Blue Christmas”... the soundtrack to my life. Even though it was getting dark, I pulled on my sunglasses, attempting to hide the tears in my eyes, but they overflowed and streamed down my face, anyway. I cried the whole way back to the convent, squished in the back of the trotro, wearing sunglasses at night that couldn’t hide the tears on my cheeks. I can’t remember the last time I felt so alone and sad.
I made it back in time for a Christmas dinner of rice and stew. Sister Dorothy gave me a Guinness to cheer me up, but before I could finish it, my phone rang. It was my family again! I talked to them for about a little over an hour, which cheered me up considerably. Afterwards, I called a few of my Ghanaian friends to wish them a merry Christmas and talked to my grandma on the phone. I was so tired that I crashed into bed when I finished.
So, my Christmas was very different and almost completely merry. I’m actually really impressed that I only had about three hours of sadness. I had expected to be sad the entire day, but besides those few hours, I had a really amazing day. I’m glad I spent my Christmas at the children’s home. If given the choice, I definitely would have chosen my family over the orphans... but since I didn’t have that choice, I would definitely choose the orphanage over staying at the convent or even traveling to other parts of Ghana.
When I talked to my family, I promised I’d be home for Christmas next year. That’s only like 364 days away! I can’t wait! Oh, and before I went to bed, I went onto the roof and said a special Christmas prayer for my family and friends in the US and in Europe, that everyone would have a fantastic Christmas. I miss you all very much. You were definitely in my thoughts and prayers on Christmas day! :)
PS: I took some pictures at the children’s home, but the school’s wireless internet is still down, so I can’t share them just yet.