There was a special progression of events that unfolded on Christmas morning which could not be altered. It was the way Christmas is supposed to happen.
As we made our way onto the porch in the pre-dawn damp darkness of the Harmattan mist, coming closer and closer was one of the most beautiful sounds in all the world. Then we could see them. Along the path near the house approached a line of angelic figures, all in white, carrying candles and singing Christmas carols. They were the nurses and nursing students, plus several missionaries. This was their present to us and others. Sometimes the carols were in English, sometimes in Yoruba, and Bill William's flute sang through the mist between the voices with a sound that, to this day, I have never heard equaled for the thrill it produced in me.
Slowly, but all too quickly, the singers-in-white circled our house and then moved on. They never stayed long enough, but it was OK for them to leave, because it meant that we could move on to the next thing. After all, there was a precise order to the way Christmas unfolded.
By the time the singers left, Daddy had the lights on. Electricity was very important to a Christmas morning (Christmas trees don't really look as nice by lamp light). Usually, the station light plant was working, but if not, Daddy would have our small generator cranked up. We could not go downstairs until Daddy said we could.
Then the word was given, and we rushed down the big front outside stairway into the dining room door – then into the living room. What would be under the tree? Had Santa Claus come?
Santa was remarkable in his ability always to come through for us. Besides the wrapped presents under the tree, there would be other marvelous things that had mysteriously appeared in the night. My sister and I would descend upon them with delightedly selfish tunnel-vision, while Mother urged us to slow down, and Daddy busied himself tuning in the BBC with its all-day Christmas music that crackled over the short-wave radio.
The two contenders for Best Christmas Ever are '51 and '59.
In '51 Santa brought me one of those wonderful huge English Raleigh tricycles and a wooden "Tommy" gun with a handle-and-ratchet I could turn to produce a rat-tat-tat sound. That tricycle was the beginning of my independence, and I could go anywhere on the compound (at least until the bush dogs around the hospital chased me home).
In '59 there was a full-size bicycle and a Daisy Model 25 BB-gun by the tree. I would love to know how many miles I put on that bike. I wore the BB-gun out completely in two-and-a-half years. I could ride that bike without holding on and shoot my BB-gun and hit every tree along one side of
while going as fast as I could pedal.
There were always other people to share Christmas with us, too. Martha Tanner came some years, and the Seats and Griffins and Browns. They always made Christmas more special, and having them with us spoiled me. I still do not think it is really Christmas unless we can share our table with non-family.
After the first rush at the Christmas tree, and the presents had been summarily dealt with, we would have a big breakfast, with special goodies and then play with the new toys. Christmas mornings seemed to pass in a blur, and I have very few clear memories of them. I might go to check on what other kids had received, but that was usually anti-climactic, because for the most part, since our parents all shopped at the same stores in Lagos, we all got pretty much the same basic presents. The only opportunities for envy came with special items sent from the States, and I don't remember too many of those.
Sometime during the morning, all the various Nigerian friends would come by all dressed in their fanciest clothes. They often had wives and children in tow.
One Christmas, the old “peanut woman,” who sold peanuts around the compound and the town from a calabash on her head, came by. The once-brightly-painted calabash was faded and scratched and the colors were hardly recognizable. Daddy took her calabash and repainted its designs in fresh, bright, good-quality paints – and a new Christmas tradition was born.
Lunch time. A lingering excitement. Then the grownups went off for their naps, and I would be alone in the living room. This was the only day of the year I didn’t have to take a nap after lunch. But by this time, it would be too hot to go outside, so I would sit in the semi-darkness of the now-unlit living room and look at my gifts.
Sometimes, there was a sense of disappointment, because I was already getting bored with my new toys. I remember marveling that one could so anticipate Christmas, and it be SO wonderful and exciting, and then it could leave one feeling so deflated – and there was nothing special left to look forward to for a very long time. It took me years to realize that the real delight is mostly in the anticipation and preparation and the doing-for-others, not in the getting.
Eventually bath time came, and supper, and a quite evening, and off to bed, knowing that when I awoke, it would be a whole year 'til next Christmas.
Memories are remarkably personal things, and not necessarily "accurate" in the strict historical sense. But they are ours, and they give us our perspective on the present.