By Rachel Pieh Jones
Stories of Christmases past get told and retold every year, slowly becoming part of our family mythology.
Christmas in Djibouti came with swirling dust storms, mosquitoes, the Islamic call to prayer, and 90-degree temperatures. It felt almost cold after the 120-degrees of summer. It was 2004, our first Christmas in Djibouti, second in Africa. We had a one-foot high Christmas tree to share with another American family and a handful of miniature ornaments. Near the tree were small packages wrapped in birthday wrapping paper or colorful t-shirts, doubling as paper for the day. White athletic socks hung along the air conditioner like stockings over the fireplace.
Our kids, four-and-a-half years old, made popcorn strings and paper chains from computer paper that they colored with green and red crayons. My husband is a master snowflake cutter and paper snowflakes hung from the ceiling. We had one CD of Christmas music and one borrowed Christmas movie, Elf. We did not have fast enough Internet to watch something online or to listen to music or purchase new music from iTunes. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. That first year in Djibouti, the best Christmas item belonged to our American friends. A Santa Claus costume.
After lunch on Christmas day the other dad disappeared. None of the kids noticed, they were too busy playing with the snowflakes and paper chains. And then! A faint jingle, a deep laugh, a knock on the door.
The door opened and in walked Santa Claus, jingling as he walked. He carried a plastic bag from the Nougaprix grocery store filled with pastel-colored candy coated almonds and lollipops.
“Santa,” our friend’s daughter said, “why are you wearing my daddy’s shoes?”
“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa said. In future years, Santa visited Djibouti barefoot. He tried to pat her on the head and she screamed and ran to hide behind her mom.
Santa sat in the living room in a plastic chair and pulled out his grocery sack.
“Ho-ho-ho,” he said and passed out candy.
My husband Tom stood at the window and looked down into the neighbor’s backyard. Three goats had been slaughtered that morning and brown and white hides now stretched over the barbed wire fence, drying.
“Santa,” our friend’s daughter said, “you sound like my dad.” She started to cry, confused and frightened. Her infant brother was already wailing.
“Ho-ho-ho,” Santa said. Her mother suggested it was time for Santa to leave. As Santa stood to go, Tom tried to distract the kids and called them to the window.
“Look,” he said, “Reindeer.” He pointed to the goatskins.
“Santa’s reindeer got skinned!” my son shouted. Henry turned away from the window just as Santa opened the door. “Santa, wait,” he called. “Wait! Your reindeer! Someone killed them.”
Screams from the baby and the little girl echoed down the hallway and Santa couldn’t hear Henry. Henry shouted louder, desperate to let Santa know what had happened to his poor reindeer but Santa stepped outside and closed the door, oblivious.
“Oh no, Santa.” Henry started to cry. He ran to the window to get another look. “How is he going to get home?”
“You told them Santa’s reindeer got skinned?” I said to Tom.
He shrugged. “I wasn’t really thinking, I guess.” He grew up on a farm and no one in his family would have been upset over skinned reindeer.
Three of the four kids were still crying when the other dad slipped back into the house. “What happened?” he asked.
We told him the story of Santa and the Skinned Goats. By the time we finished, the kids had wandered off to play and the adults were almost in tears from laughter.
* * *
We slowly did what Americans do, accumulated stuff. We gathered more Christmas memorabilia. Stores in Djibouti began carrying Christmas candies, decorations, and wrapping paper. Our holiday celebration started to look ever-so-slightly like the ones I had grown up with in Minnesota, including strings of lights and candy canes and Christmas music and patterned Christmas stockings, which continue to be hung over the air conditioner with care. And stories, that part of Christmas that doesn’t need to be packed up and stored away, the part we actually want to accumulate. Stories of Christmases past that get told and retold every year, slowly becoming part of our family mythology.
I could forgo all the decorations, all the Christmas-themed foods and songs and movies. No snow, no holiday parades, no white elephant gift exchanges. They all fade away into the background of my pre-expatriate life. Even the decorations we do have, all the physical items we cherish, might one day be lost or stolen or destroyed or left behind. We’ve evacuated before and we know that when you have two hours to pack and are allowed a single suitcase, the Christmas tree isn’t a priority. But the stories are.
Holidays are story times, story-bearers. We sit around the holiday dinner table and tell stories about Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easters, July Fourths past. The year we went to the Salt Lake, the lowest point in Africa and one of the hottest on the planet, where the salt was so pure white we pretended it was snow and tried to feel cold. The year we were in Minnesota, once in a decade, and Henry went hunting for the first time in his life and brought down two geese with a single bullet and we ate one for Thanksgiving dinner. The Disney World family reunion Christmas when we sang our personalized version of the 12 Djibouti Days of Christmas. The whale sharks that we swim with every year the day after Christmas, when we camp at Arta Plage under the wide starry sky.
Each year we live a new story and we add it to the pile of stories we can tell about the holidays and these stories become the links in our chain. The chain tethers us to one another, across borders and time zones and nations, across history. This is our story. This is who we are. This is how the Jones family rolls. Because we share this past, we share a sense of belonging.
The story of Santa and the Skinned Goats is retold every Christmas and every Christmas we are freshly shocked that Dad let Henry think the goats were reindeer. Every year we laugh at Henry’s earnest and useless appeal to Santa to listen. Every year we laugh about the crying kids. And every year something new happens that we add to our repertoire of story links that tell us we belong right here, in this expatriate family. Merry Christmas, joyeux noel, eid wanaagsan.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at:Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.