cardboard letters & salt dough ornaments

Christmas Around the World

Today Kelli shares a memory from Christmas in Africa

Growing up in the same city, attending the local, big name university, marrying my high school sweetheart, starting our new life in that same city just minutes from our immediate families – it’s the classic, southern American fairytale. Everything was predictable, easy, all things readily accessible, every holiday exactly the same: Easter here, 4th of July there, Christmas Eve with this family, Christmas Day with that family.

In 2012, everything became unpredictable, inaccessible, and we found ourselves thousands of miles from home in remote Africa, with the holidays just three months away. We were living in a temporary house with borrowed furniture, a fireplace that would be of no use to us over the holidays, and nothing of “home” except what we packed in our 9 suitcases and trunks.
When you have to pack extra toiletries, as well as, clothes, and any other items you deem necessary for survival in a third world country, Christmas decorations tend to get left behind, packed away in storage until the day, years later, you are able to part with the nostalgia of all that made your ordinary life memorable.

All of that not even to mention the fact that a southern hemisphere Christmas is the absolute opposite of cold and snuggly.


I was at a loss. I wasn’t even sure how we were going to provide our daughter, 2 years old at the time, with the Christmas we thought she deserved – family, food, and good gifts. As I navigated my way through this new town, figuring out where we would shop for groceries and other goods, I kept my eyes peeled for any decent decorations that would help transform our home into everything we always had for Christmas. An evergreen tree eluded us, as did ornaments that weren’t cheap and flimsy, sure to break at the slightest provocation. As you can imagine, there were no toys that I would dare purchase for even my greatest enemy; sure they would poison upon contact and I shuddered to think of how many “small parts” my daughter could choke on.

My only market-bought victory was a strand of star lights for my daughter’s room that shocked me on a number of occasions when I plugged and unplugged them in the morning and evening, keeping at wary eye on them at all times for fear that they would spontaneously combust and burn the house down.

Everything else had to be hand-made. My husband, probably feeling the despair emanating from my being at any thought of our impending doom: an ambiance-free Christmas, determined to make our Christmas unique and special. Our host country is famous for it’s baobab forests, so he commissioned a huge, wooden, hand-carved baobab tree as our Christmas tree stand-in. We picked up a small, wooden nativity from a local artisan. My daughter and I set our minds and kitchen to hand-made, hand-painted salt dough ornaments and a “Merry Christmas” bunting cut from cereal boxes. Our wonderful, loving families mailed packages of ingredients for us to make Christmas cookies and candies; as well as, the non-perishable goods to fix at least a couple of our favorite Christmas dinner dishes and whatever presents for our daughter that would fit in a flat-rate box.

If I’m totally honest, I can’t remember what our Christmas dinner tasted like or even what Christmas traditions we observed, except for reading the Christmas story, of course, and Isaiah 53 which points us to the reason Christ came to Earth in the first place. I remember chatting with our various families and opening our mailing box presents, but my most favorite memory of that season, our first Christmas away from family, a Christmas that had promised to be anything but merry and bright, was the peace and calm we experienced that Christmas Day. We relished the absence of kitschy Christmas propaganda and the crazy, hustle and bustle. It was a reset for me and for my family; a chance to slow down.
Five years later and we’re still far away from family and our Christmases are still sticky and sun-tanned, but our perspective has changed. I no longer fret over the perfect Christmas ambiance or trying to fit in all of the Christmas traditions for the sake of tradition. Our Christmases are more intentional to strip away all of the excess and consider the true meaning of Christmas: our Saviour came to Earth as a babe, lived a perfect, sinless life, and died on the cross to save us from our sins. All thanks to an expensive baobab tree that eventually ended up as firewood, a single string of star lights that I will not dare ever use again, and lumpy, moldy, salt dough ornaments of which I only kept one or two.

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