Although Christmas is not part of our indigenous culture or religion in Zimbabwe, and our holiday is very different from how families celebrate in the U.S., the true meaning is very much the same. For kids in Zimbabwe, Christmas is a magical time. And at the heart of the celebration is family – just as it is in the U.S. and in other places in the world.
While my U.S. born wife reminisces about the magical feeling associated with Santa and his reindeer, I recall the excitement associated with exotic food and new clothes reserved just for the December celebrations. I also associate it with the return of loved ones who had moved to the cities.
As part of our countdown to Christmas, kids would fantasize about the enormous amounts of unique foods we’d eat on Christmas day, saying things like, “I’m going to fill my stomach until it bursts!” or “I’m going to eat until I’m full to my throat!”, while rubbing our little hands together in anticipation. We’d count the coins we’d saved throughout the year, predicting how much we’d have to spend on treats to celebrate our special day.
Every Christmas, my grandfather would slaughter a cow or goat and we would braai (grill) a portion of the meat, while drying the remaining meat on a line hanging above the kitchen fire. Other coveted food and treats included fat coeks (homemade donuts), fresh bread made on the fire, jam and butter, soda, and rice (in place of our staple, sadza). We enjoyed non-indigenous fruit, like apples and oranges. This fueled our imaginations as to what the city and life beyond Zimbabwe must be like.
On Christmas morning, we would complete the usual routine of milking the cows, and then we’d go fetch water to bathe or go to the river to wash ourselves. We dressed up in our new clothes, and although the pair of trousers from my grandparents didn’t quite match with shirt gifted to me from my uncle, it didn’t matter to me.
Later in the day, all the kids gathered together and set off on the 20-mile walk to the shops, where we bought candy, biscuits (cookies), and Center Cools (unfrozen freezer pops, since we didn’t have refrigeration). As we approached the shops, we could hear music blasting from speakers, as each store competed with another for the highest quality stereo and the latest music from Zimbabwe’s best musicians. I would start feeling nervous, with adrenalin pumping through me and butterflies in my stomach – all because of the excitement of the unknown. The area would be overflowing with people dressed in their finest clothes.
After buying our treats, we ate our candy and saved the best item for last. We’d wander around chomping on our chewing gum like we were at an exhibition. Once in a while we would squeeze into a crowded store to bust out our best move on the dance floor.
On the long walk home, we’d show off our biscuits and Center Cools to our friends. Although we were bragging in a sense, we would always share our treats, because generosity with food is one of the most highly valued traits in our culture.
As a boy, I may have dreamed of the glamorous city lifestyle and fancy toys, but even at a young age, I knew that my culture, village life, and close-knit family are what defined my happiness. When our enormous family all gathered in one place for Christmas, life felt complete.