Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas in Ogbomosho Part 3

By: Peter Gilliland

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 Teak Boulevard 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.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Christmas in Ogbomosho Part 2

By: Peter Gilliland

Aahhh! Christmas in Ogbomosho. To this day, I am convinced that THAT is where REAL CHRISTMAS happened, especially during the 1950s and early '60s.

Christmas there was not just a day, but a season. The best season.

We lived on a very large mission station, and celebrations were a Big Deal. There were parties; a station party, at the Seminary, or sometimes at the guest house. And it was wonderful.

And there was the Christmas Pageant. One year, my sister, Diana, was Joseph, because she was the biggest kid. Linda Goldie was Mary. I think Pat & Jim and Jonathon were the Wise Guys. John and Bill Carey and I were shepherds.

Then later, John and BC and I aged into Wise Guys. We sang "We Three Kings," and my verse was "Born a King on Bethlehem's plain, gold I bring...."

One year we did something like "The Littlest Shepherd," and Kenny was Him.

For weeks ahead of time we had rehearsals. Aunt Jane was usually the one tasked with making us into thespians. And it was wonderful.

Sometime in November we made a pilgrimage to Lagos to buy presents. We stayed at "the Hostel" and shopped at Kingsway and UTC and Chelarams and Leventis. Kingsway had a black Father Christmas, and I had my picture made sitting on his knee. In the afternoons we would go to Victoria Beach for a couple of hours, and I was delighted and terrified (and sometimes almost drowned) by the tremendous breakers. Then back at the Hostel there would be a quarter inch of sand in the bathtub after my bath. And it was wonderful.

My mother always hosted a carol sing at our house. Most of the station crowded in to sing Christmas carols, while my father and a few other non-singing men retreated to the kitchen to fry up donuts. And we always sang "The Twelve Days of Christmas." And it was wonderful.

There was lots of good food; cakes, cookies and pies in quantities not seen through the rest of the year. And there was Mrs. Jester's fruitcake. And it was wonderful.

There was excitement in the air, a marvelous anticipation, and parents hid things from children, and children were forbidden to enter certain rooms. And it was wonderful! 

The days were hot and dry and the nights were cool and you could imagine winter. It seemed that Christmas would never actually arrive because time passed so slowly. And it was wonderful.

And the Christmas decorations came out. For years, we had a casuarina tree – or branch – for a Christmas tree. Daddy strung the lights, and Mother and Diana attached the decorations, and I was "shooed" away from the tree because I was not trusted to place ornaments properly.

The tree lights were the old fat-bulb kind. If one bulb was bad, the whole string hung in darkness while Daddy changed one bulb after another to find the offender, and then the lights would come on in delightful, colorful glory. There were a few of the candle-shaped lights that were supposed to bubble, but after a few years they did well just to light up. In later years there was tinsel to hang on the tree, and plastic icicles, and even lights that did not all go out if one failed.

Then came the years of artificial trees. They were more perfect and modern and from America and they looked more like the pictures in the Saturday Evening Post, but somehow -- they never seemed quite as "right" as the casuarina branches -- and the only smell they had was of musty staleness.

Sometimes I just sat in the living room and looked at the tree, and at the presents that began to accumulate under the tree (but which we couldn’t touch), and I would dream delightful dreams of anticipation and wonder what was in those packages.

And it seemed that Christmas would never actually arrive.

And it was wonderful.

Finally, after weeks of anticipation and delighted, seemingly unending, frustration, The Day Before Christmas arrived.The excitement was unbearable. Nothing really happened that day, and the boring suspense was terrible.

I knew that some families cheated and opened their presents – or at least one present – on Christmas Eve, but I knew that such behavior wasn't really proper, and that wasn't how WE did Christmas. No, we waited – and suffered – until THE Day.

The Night Before Christmas was not just a poem to me. It was the LONGEST night of the year. I tried hard to sleep (I knew Santa Clause couldn't come until I was asleep). I listened carefully for reindeer (I had been assured that Santa could handle the fact that we had neither chimney nor snow). And my mind danced in unquenchable excitement as I anticipated the delights to come with the next daylight. Eventually, sleep would sneak in behind the drumming from the town and overpower me when I wasn't looking.

Suddenly, it was The Morning, and Christmas was HERE! Mother would wake me and bundle me into my robe and slippers, and we would step out onto our upstairs porch to begin CHRISTMAS!