Everyone receives gifts differently, I think. There are those who wake up Christmas morning just biting at the bit to rip open packages and see what’s theirs. There are the people who take joy in watching others open gifts and, to them, that is a gift in itself. I’ve never been one of these people, really, preferring mostly to rip open my packages quickly and get to the heart of what Christmas is really all about: more stuff for me. You may chuckle at this, but if you’re a gift-receiver at heart, you know what I mean. You salivate when you know someone has a gift for you. What I’ve learned over the years, though, is that the gift often reveals something about the giver.
For example, when my grandmother was still alive, she went to great lengths to find extravagant gifts for each of her children and grandchildren. She delighted in giving me a leather jacket or my sisters sweaters from Express. She knew that my family couldn’t afford these things normally and so she wanted to give them to us. The gift told me that my grandmother loved us uniquely and wanted to express her love for us extravagantly.
My mother, on the other hand, would give us different gifts. The gifts weren’t as plentiful as they were at our grandparent’s house, but there were well thought out and full of love. In 1997, my mom got me the CD that I’d been wanting so badly (and still have to this day – Sarah McLachlan’s Surfacing.) The gift told me my mom didn’t have as much extra money, but she knew us well and she wanted good things for us.
My Christmas celebrations here in Kenya have been counter-traditional to what I’m used to. For example, people here don’t put Christmas lights up on their houses our huts. They don’t inflate life-sized scenes of baby Jesus in the manger right in front of their houses and there’s not a lot of hullabaloo about shopping until you’re dropping. With all these differences, I’m left wondering what is the same. What can I cling to that reminds me that this time of the year is uniquely Yule Tide?
Tim and Lorna, a Kenyan couple who work closely with AfricaHope, opened their home to me and some missionaries that had no other Christmas plans. Not too long after I woke up yesterday, Lorna began teaching me how to make chapatti, a Kenyan food that’s similar to a tortilla but much more complicated and delicious. We had no exchange of gifts or sitting around a tree or fireplace. We had each other and we had laughter. My friend, Ashleigh, remembered to bring her iPod and so Lorna and I listened to Christmas music when we were cooking. There was something simple and beautiful about that exchange. She was teaching me how to cook her food and we were listening to music I approved of – Over the Rhine’s latest Christmas album.
Not too long after we left their house this morning, we passed through a wild and mostly uninhabited area where we saw zebra, wildebeest, ostrich and gazelle all greeting us as we blazed a dust trail through their neighborhood. We were closer to home when we saw her, though. In my opinion it’s the most beautiful animal Kenya has to offer: the giraffe. She’s so graceful and kind you almost think you can walk up to her and give her a big hug. I was wondering when I looked at her this morning what more could I ask God to give me this Christmas? I was racking my brain for what gift I could have received in the states that would compare the simple beauty of seeing this giraffe eat the leaves from the top of a tree. The gift reminded me that God knew me intimately and deeply – he knew that I loved and he wanted to give it to give it to me as a gift of love.
As I’m sitting here in my house and seeing a thunderstorm blow in from the plane, I’m thinking also of the gift this year that I won’t soon forget. I think it even tops this morning’s giraffe. Yesterday, not too long after lunch, I was walking with some of my friends into the village where I could get cell phone service to call my family and Helen. Along the dust path, we walked past five or six Maasai girls that were still all dressed up from church earlier that day. They stopped to greet us and say “how-a-youuuu,” as they looked to the ground so we could touch the top of their heads – a typical Maasai way for them to show respect. “Very good, thank you,” I replied as we passed them. And then, just as we were walking away, I turned around and said, “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas to you,” they replied, almost in unison and smiling big as though I had just given them the perfect gift.