For two years, from 1993-1995 I lived and worked as a volunteer in Morondava, Madagascar; a small town on the West Coast of the island country of Madagascar, off of the continent of Africa, near Mozambique.
As I think back, most things were drastically different from what I knew to be normal. The holidays were no exception. So, on this eve of Christmas Eve, I thought it might be fun to share. For instance, in the United States I would say that Christmas is the biggest holiday. In Madagascar, the biggest holiday is Easter. The religious celebration of Easter. There are no bunny and eggs. Christmas was also more focused on the religious celebration, though I do remember a holiday celebration at the school with a Christmas tree trimmed in paper-chain garland and gold tinsel - and the kids singing songs. Usually at these celebrations there would be some red punch and dry cookies. Not the icing kind. More like a macaroon. Being the height of the hot season, with the temperature around 100-120 degrees, give or take, any celebration was a bit low key. There was no AC. Rarely a fan. There was no story of Frosty... I nearly melted.
The biggest contrast as you can imagine, between our country and one of the poorest in Africa, around the holidays and otherwise was the lack of commercialism and consumption. Christmas was not a big purchasing affair. It just wasn't part of the culture, nor would it have been financially feasible. There were no last minute Target runs. No flurry to wrap presents. No trying to find a parking spot at the mall. It was refreshing actually. Imagine if Christmas was going to church, sharing a simple meal with your family and maybe one small gift. Like a little toy car, doll or super ball - and that was it.
Both years at Christmas, and Easter as well, I remember buying a coconut-leaf webbed bag at the market and loading it with novelty items such as sugar and lemons for lemonade, batteries to play the radio, pieces of candy for the kids and I forget what else - for the two families with four children each who lived next to our house in one room cement homes the size of my modest kitchen, with tins roofs. Both dads were employed by our landlord to guard the homes and business they owned. They were SO grateful to receive the gift and I recall how one of the families tried to return the bag, and were excited all over again to receive the bag as a gift as well.
In return as a very nice and too generous gesture, we were given a duck for Christmas. A live duck. A live duck being held upside down with its feet wrapped in twine. I remember having to take the duck by the feet and then tie one foot to something in the kitchen so it couldn't freely waddle around the house. And (which gets a bit off the subject of Christmas, I know) I will never forget the morning I woke up to the duck quacking at my bed, having broken free of the twine - and how thankful I was for the protection of my mosquito net against more than mosquitos and hissing cockroaches! (And that the gift was a duck and not a goat!) We did finally get help killing and preparing the duck, which is something you only need to experience once. I remember a very entertaining and shocking conversation about how not only in the U.S. do we not kill ducks and chickens in our own kitchens to eat, but you can actually buy a whole package of thighs, wings, legs or breasts, rather than the whole bird!
In a loose sort of way, what was a bit similar between cultures was how holiday meals were more "extravagent" than every other day. Meaning in Malagasy terms, there was more meat - or meat at all. Duck, chicken or beef. Every meal, and I mean every meal, constituted of white, sticky rice and a version of sauce that began with garlic, onion and tomato. Additions would have been butter beans, some gross minty-tasting greens and coconut milk, to name a few. But on holidays like Christmas and Easter there was meat. Served as usual on the floor in a big bowl set in the center of the circle of people, where everyone would dig in with their own big spoon.
Being that I was still an American, I do remember that first Christmas, my roommate and I went to the "fancy" market (meaning it had refrigeration and imported stuff) and splurged on a Crunch candy bar to share. The big, thick kind. And we had a Coca Cola along with it in a one-liter COLD glass bottle. (The other option would have been Orange Fanta, which made for an easy decision.) What fun memories!!
So as I sit here at home, surrounded by all kinds of first-world holiday problems, such as what last-minute stops still need to be made and do we have enough paper and bows for all the gifts - I am reminded of such a simple season. And how much appreciation there was for the smallest of gestures... how economically out of balance our world can be... how easy it is to get caught up in the "more." And I am reminded to be very, very grateful for all that I have, and all that I don't need - and to teach my children gratitude and perspective - and to find joy in their joy at the wonder of the season... to be focused on the "present," rather than the presents.
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