I spent the Christmas of 1983, in my husband’s father’s remote village in Liberia, West Africa. You see, the anthropology professor I had married as an Ohio farm girl in the 1960’s, was a descendant of the powerful Mende chief, Ngombu Tejjeh. It was not a typical marriage. In fact, everyone possible had opposed it. Nevertheless, we eventually married. During the 1980’s, we spent a year in his remote tribal village and celebrated Christmas Eve overseas there. Needless to say, we didn’t have the usual trappings of a Western Christmas. Below is an excerpt from Beyond Myself: The Farm Girl and the African Chief.
Christmas Eve Overseas in a Tribal Village
We were in Vahun for a year with our three boys because our faith in Jesus was the unifying factor in our marriage and Ben’s greatest desire was to share Jesus with his people. As lay missionaries, we were supporting the work of the white missionaries stationed there. Ben was a native son and “chief” so his influence was great as a big fish in a very small pond.
We lived in the center of the village in Ben’s nephew’s house – a mud block structure with concrete plastered walls and a corrugated zinc roof. The bush plane had brought us eight Christmas cards. Joe, eight, and Peter, five, made construction-paper chains decorated with bells, stars, and trees and I hung them in the living room. The missionary’s wife gave us a small cardboard manger scene, and we put it on the buffet, surrounded by fresh palm leaves. Our houseboys tied palm branches on our porch posts—a typical sign of celebration.
The familiar Christmas songs on my cassette tapes made me shed a few tears, but my spirit revived as I sang along with them. We faced a Christmas with no gifts under the tree, no familiar church program, and no smell of Christmas cookies in the oven. Our only “snow” was “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” on the tape player.
Santa was a masked being with raffia arms and legs, his brightly colored headdress mask adorned with tiny mirrors. Instead of giving gifts, he asked for them. Peter brought him to our porch, and I took a picture of Santa hugging him. There was a crowd of boys standing around grinning.
On Christmas Eve, we paused for a quick picture in front of our house before walking up to the mission house for dinner. The missionary’s wife went all out with a branch of twinkling Christmas lights, red flowers on the table, and Frosty the Snowman napkins by our plates. We rode down the hill in their Toyota Land Cruiser, singing, “Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh …”
The church window shutters were open, letting in the cool night breeze. Two large kerosene pump lanterns sat on the simple wooden altar, illuminating the colorful felt banners, donated by American churches, on both sides of the mud-block wall. Everything glistened, including the palm leaves, but I missed the pine smell of a Christmas tree.
People reverently filed in, filling the benches, the children hushed and still. Our choir of eight, wearing robes for the first time, marched in carrying candles and singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” with an African lilt. After placing our candles in the windows, we sat down. As I listened to the Christmas story, read in English and translated into Mende—“And there were in the same country, shepherds abiding in the fields …”—I realized this humble village was more like the setting of Christ’s birth than any place I’d ever known.
On Christmas Eve, that night of nights, an avalanche of homesickness hit me. I looked outside the church window and saw a full moon rising, imagining it shining on my Michigan home.
The True Meaning of Christmas
Everything was stripped away except the true meaning of Christmas—that the Lord came to His people. I sat there hearing afresh the message, “Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given …” I thought of Christians celebrating all over the world. As I watched the kingdom of God in Mende faces, Christmas became universal; its meaning and joy applied to people in every country and climate. We all had a Savior, our bond of faith overcoming cultural differences.
We had the essentials: God’s love, His Gift for all time, and our faith. My family wasn’t there, but we had Ben’s “relatives” and our brothers and sisters in Christ. After the service, everyone walked home through the village, our family singing Christmas carols. I was moved when the choir dropped by later to sing Christmas carols on our porch. We gave them roasted peanuts and fried plantain chips.
The fog lifted the next morning as we walked to church. Ben and I welcomed everyone, saying “Merry Christmas!” On this holiest of days, attendees crammed the wooden benches. Communion was served. From the back of the church, I quickly took a picture of the crowd.
It was a Christmas I’ll never forget. For the whole story, read Beyond Myself.