“Christmas, when observed with the right spirit, still has the power to call miracles from Heaven to Earth.”

The day is dark and getting darker: snow first then rain. The sky has that light gray color, the almost white which heralds a storm. Cold doesn’t quite describe the chill. When I ran out for the papers, I had to fix my star, a big white one which hangs on the fence to the backyard and has a trail of lights. I noticed it didn’t light last night because it had fallen off the nail and disconnected itself. I stood in the freezing morning connecting cords and rehanging the star. When I walked into the house, I could feel the warmth and smell the coffee. I was happy. I had my papers, the star was fixed and the coffee ready.

My back is almost its old self, achy but not bowed. I can even get out of bed without moaning. I walk almost upright: homo erectus again. I don’t know what I did to it but it was a doozy.

My first Christmas away from home was in Ghana. I will never forget it.

It is the harmattan in December when a dry, dusty wind blows from the desert and brings hot, hot days and cool, almost cold, nights. My students were dressed in layers every morning as they went about their chores, mostly sweeping the school compound. When I’d wake up, I would hear the swish of the hand-held sticks used as brooms. I knew I would later see the imprint of those sticks fanned across the dirt when I walked to class. Christmas is a low-keyed affair in northern Ghana. It is a morning spent in church. For my students, it meant school vacation. Empty busses would come, fill with students then head south to places like Kumasi dropping students at junctions on the way. The lucky bus drivers got their quota for the day with the one stop at my school. The Sunday before vacation started was when the Christmas celebration was held. Staff members wore their finest cloths and some male teachers wore kente, students were dressed in their Sunday uniforms and ministers and the white father from town were invited and sat at the head table. A tree was erected in the dining hall. It had mostly homemade ornaments though I lent a few of mine sent by my mother. They gave the tree a bit of home. The Bible was read and students sang carols. The ministers and the white father offered words of wisdom and spoke about the meaning of Christmas in our lives. Students sang more carols. We then stood as the head table left the dining hall followed by the rest of us, students last.

The compound was quiet once the students were gone. Patrick, another volunteer, and I prepared for a party on Christmas Eve. We knew they’d be volunteers passing through town on their way north into then Upper Volta and onward to the desert in Niger or Mali and Timbuktu. Patrick and I thought we’d all need to be together that first year, to take comfort from one another. I decorated my house with what my mother had sent including a small tree, ornaments, brick-designed crepe paper and a stocking with my name on it. Her Christmas package wouldn’t arrive that year until late January. We convinced the woman at the Hotel d’Bull bar to sell us beer. Her concern was getting back the bottles as beer was often unavailable because the bottling company would sometimes run out of bottles. We swore we’d bring them back, and she relented. We got gas for my oven, and I baked for the first time. I made sugar cookies using the cookie cutters my mother had sent. I had a tree, a reindeer and Santa. The cookies came out perfectly. We bought a few foodstuffs in the market but only a few as we knew our guests would bring food. A volunteer would never come to another volunteer’s house empty-handed. We didn’t know how many guests were coming. Five or six volunteers who were staying at my house and sleeping on my living room floor went to the market and brought back fruit, groundnuts, kelewele and I don’t remember what else. I just know it was a bounty.

The house was full on Christmas Eve. There was a lot of laughter and we sang carols. Someone said please don’t sing I’ll Be Home for Christmas, and we didn’t. Later that night a few of us went outside to cool off a bit and we sat together behind my house near the wall. The sky was ablaze with stars, the night was chilly and we were quiet until someone said,”The night must have been just like this on the very first Christmas.” That went right to my heart and made me realize Christmas is what we make of it and it doesn’t matter how or where or with whom we celebrate. That year I had a most wonderful Christmas. Everybody was my family, and I was home.

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12 Comments on ““Christmas, when observed with the right spirit, still has the power to call miracles from Heaven to Earth.””

  1. im6 Says:

    Nothing I like better than a good cry first thing in the morning. Thanks, Kat 😉

  2. olof1 Says:

    I would have liked that Christmas.
    We never sang in my family unless they were pretty drunk 🙂 Unfortunatley most of my relatives only knew one song, I’m dreaming of a white Christmas and they keptb on singing it all night. The color would however change after a while 🙂

    I once rented a cottage in the deep forest a bit north and one year I drove up there just before Christmas, It was I, my dog and my two cats and we arrived sometime in the middle of the night. It was freezing cold outside and not much warmer indoors either 🙂 It took two days before it was reasonable warm in the cottage (and that was only in the kitchen 🙂 )

    It was an absolutely clear night on Christmas eve and I don’t think I ever seen that many stars. The air was absolutely still and it was absolutely quiet. I think that is the most beautiful Christmas I’ve ever had.

    Have a great day!

    • katry Says:

      My family always sang which was more the pity as I have about the worse voice. At every party people sang. My uncle thought he sounded like Bing Crosby. I remember my mother’s aunt at the piano playing while everyone crowded around to sing. It didn’t have to be a holiday, just a get-together. That’s how I learned all the old songs.

      I’m laughing at the color changing after a while!

      I know exactly how you felt about that Christmas Eve. I will never forget that first Ghanaian Christmas and the night so bright from stars you could read by them. It was cold for Africa, a gift from the harmattan. It will always be the most special Christmas of them all for me.

      Have a great evening!

  3. Hedley Says:

    Isaiah 9:6

    St Mary and St Nicholas Church in Leatherhead has some sections dating back to the Normans, and it was there, as a boy, that I was given the opportunity to sing under the direction of Sid Hardacre. I loved the choir, the hymns, my friends, the services on Sunday and the weddings for which I received 5 shillings.

    Christmas Eve was special. Somewhere in the long dark narrow pews in the church naval sat my Mother, waiting for my moment. Each year I would be the first one to leave the choir and stand on the steps looking in to the darkness and I would say the words “wonderful, counselor” and the celebration had begun.

    As the snow falls yet again, I plan for the Christmas Eve vigil at St John Fisher Chapel. I must arrive early to secure the 4th pew from the front where our family hymn books are located and wait for everyone to arrive. The Church will darken, we will see the flicker of the four advent candles and the faithful will sing “silent night, holy night” and I will be transported across time to that little church in Leatherhead and the family that have been gone for so long and the tears will flow.

    • katry Says:

      My Dear Hedley,
      I am a fan of boys choirs. I remember the first one my church had and how my neighbor sang solo. He was about 10 and had the most beautiful voice. I would have loved to have seen young Hedley and hear his choir.

      Midnight mass on Christmas Eve was always special for me. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to go. I remember the church was festive with poinsettias across the front and around the altar. The priest always wore the white vestment. Carols were sung. The church was crowded but never restless as with other masses. There was just something so special about midnight mass.

      It is a gift that we are drawn back through time to the best of memories and at Christmas time that gift is so every special. I would be joining you with a tearful face and a smile.

  4. Coleen Burnett Says:

    A lovely story, Kat…

    My dear friend Richard, who is choirmaster for several local churches, has once again roped me in to do some singing for a couple of affairs this Christmas. Included in this year’s music is – – God help me – – “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”.


    Sometimes you just have to be a good sport, bear down, and take one for the team….



    • katry Says:

      Thanks, Coleen

      “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”-Yikes!!!

      That is most decidedly taking one for the team: make that several teams!

  5. Bill S. Says:

    That b&w photo reminds us of our acacia Christmas tree in Bolga, decorated with mostly handmade paper ornaments.

    Our first Christmas in Ghana was spent in Tafo; it was also our first Christmas as a married couple, about to have our first child. 1969 was an eventful year. We could never have imagined in 1968 all that taking place just 12 months later. Sometimes people ask if we were a little bit unsure about going to Africa, and I always answer that we had no pre-conceived thoughts about where we would be living, eating, doing, etc. It’s better not knowing and not expecting.

    It’s snowing again……

    • katry Says:

      That photo is the one in the dining hall that first Christmas I was in Bolga. It probably is an acacia.

      I too had no pre-conceived notions. I remember being asked by the psychologist in Philadelphia if I would mind living in the north. I told him I didn’t care as I knew nothing about it and asked what he knew that made him ask that question. He said he didn’t know either but was supposed to ask.

      The pictures from the Panoply of Ghana were beautiful so I had at least seen them, but that was it.

      I remember on the fact sheet Peace Corps sent us before we left they said we didn’t need spices as Ghanaian food was heavily spiced. They failed to mentioned with hot pepper and nothing else.

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