“Have a green Christmas”, our missionary colleagues wrote via e-mail a few days before Christmas. Far from a naturally consequential curse of over-eating (which some of you may have suffered), theirs is a sure blessing here in Malawi’s second month of rainy season. A white Christmas, barring a very rare heavy pounding of hail out of one of the frequent thunderstorms, is exceedingly unlikely. Today, on Christmas Day, arguably the most widely recognized, if not celebrated, religious holiday in the world, I thought I’d share with you what our first Malawian Christmas has found.
Backing up a few days, or weeks, we’ve noticed from our somewhat distant vista (we live about 30 minutes out of town and are not in the stores every day), the “Christmas spirit” did not really get off the ground in Lilongwe until a few days before Christmas. (The one exception: “Santa Plaza”, a variety store run by Muslims, complete with sleigh and reindeer blazoned on the front façade year round.) Yesterday (Christmas Eve) for the first time we heard carols playing over the loudspeakers in the grocery store. This late appearance of the Christmas “season” is a mixed blessing. We missed the music, but the blatant commercialization of Christmas is not so prolonged or extensive here as it is in America, largely because most of the population has so little money.
Gift giving in Malawi sounds somewhat like stories my parents told me about Christmas in the U.S. during the great depression, when oranges were likely the only gifts. Similarly, a special meal, chicken with rice rather than the boiled corn flour staple, nsima, is often the center of Christmas, if not its only manifestation for a family, if they can afford that. Christmas and New Year’s day are understood to be national holidays, and most workers get off, but the president didn’t get around to making the annual proclamation of such, essential for government workers to get a holiday, until late in the week.
Among members of Churches of Christ in Malawi, because an annual celebration of Christ’s birth is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament, Christmas is generally not recognized or celebrated, though there are exceptions. With the general lack of emphasis on gift-giving, the easily commercialized aspect of Christmas, and the pervasive poverty (political calendars are often wall decorations) it is easy to let this holiday slide, to ignore it completely, and often this happens. This is true of other more conservative, restorationist churches as well. Mainline churches, however, often have a service on Christmas Eve or Christmas day.
Christmas, at least on the surface of things, does not seem to be a big deal in Malawi.
Given this cluster of realities, what we should do as we interact with Malawi while having very different thoughts about Christmas is an interesting problem for a new missionary in early adjustment. Opening some boxes of Christmas things proved quite helpful as we found termites had destroyed the box, with no real damage to the contents. We decorated a tree, put a wreath on the front door and a collection of candles in an internal window sill, and wondered how these would be perceived by our colleagues. (We also mounted a full-scale termite search, which may have saved a lot of valuables.)
Beth gave Florence, the lady who helps her in the house, a bonus of about 22% of a month’s pay. We then took her and her apprentice from Mtendere village to town on Thursday (Florence’s first trip to town in about five years). They split a hamburger and fries and a pizza, which Florence particularly likes. They then went to the market where Florence bought a new wrap-around skirt cloth, a new purse, and a new blouse.
Beth also baked banana bread, giving small loaves to many of our closer friends on the campus around us and some off campus. On Thursday night we went caroling, as was the custom in both our families. We visited several workers on our campus, including Florence, who live in a row of “apartments” which you would probably perceive as small “storage units” based on their size and shape. We stood at the end of the short row of about ten units and sang the three Christmas carols we had found in the Malawian Chichewa hymnal. We then visited a family from church whom we knew would not be offended by our coming. Then we went to Mtendere, the children’s orphanage below our house.
By the time we got there it was after 8:00, and for the first time I saw no one out on campus at that hour. We sang the three Chichewa carols at five stations on the campus, adding “Joy to the World” at one point. Because of the tendency for hymns in Chichewa to be sung to African tunes and rhythms radically different from those we know, Beth had been concerned as to whether the caroling would be appreciated. The next day one of the boys described one reaction to our coming. When singing was first heard from the opposite end of the campus, one of the boys looked at another and asked, “Have angels come to visit Mtendere?” Then another said, “No, somebody’s got their radio on and put it in their window really loud.” Then, as we moved closer to their house and began again, the first went to the window and stuck his head out. “No, it’s Bruce and Berta!” (Beth’s most common identity—the Chewa don’t handle “Beth” well.) We’re certainly not professionals, but good music done reasonably well is generally appreciated across cultures, as it was here.
We had hoped to visit our son who lives about 500 miles east of us in Mozambique, but that proved impossible at the last minute, so we treated ourselves to a couple of days at a nice hotel in the Capital. Christmas Eve we hosted a couple who have no support—she’s from the U.S.A., and he is from South Africa—for a marvelous dinner and several hours of good conversation. I really appreciate their insights into African culture and the involvement of church leaders in the HIV epidemic, a topic of particular interest to them as well. We slept in this morning, Christmas. I ran, and then we had a late breakfast. We’ve rested, read the papers, watched a movie (August Rush—I recommend it), rugby and soccer games, and CNN news, all special treats to us. We’ve enjoyed the air conditioning in the humid weather and have skyped with several friends and relatives: our Korea-based daughter and her husband who are visiting a friend in China, our son and his family in Mozambique, Beth’s brother in Arkansas, colleagues in Turkey and Tanzania, and our always-supportive Missions Minister at Landmark Church of Christ in Montgomery, Wes Gunn. We still hope to catch sisters and our son in California.
Tomorrow we’ll visit a large congregation in town, and then head back to the house, thankful always for our Lord who came to live among us, no matter what day he actually made his entrance on earth, the many blessings he gives us to help in our adjustment to living with and for Malawians, and the many relatives and friends who support us in this mission. In the end, all the hype, glitter, gifts, playing of Christmas music, and other customs, the “externals” which are so different between our family and our Malawian friends, are not what it is all about, are they? Whether Christmas is a “big deal” in this sense doesn’t matter one whit, but the effect of the coming of God to live among us, his life, his death and his resurrection on our lives, whether we also live “resurrection lives”—that is what it, life itself (not just Christmas) is all about, isn’t it? If not, nothing else really matters. And by that measure Christmas may in fact be a bigger deal to the average Malawian than to the average American, in the heart, if not on the surface of society.