Abuja – Nigeria. In the 80s when I was a very young child, life in my hometown (Warri) was easy and safe. Christmas was a magical time. Today, I look at how the young children celebrate the holidays and I cannot help but feel sad for the thrill of adventure lost. Kids today are tied down at home with gadgets games like play stations, wii, Xbox, Nintendo etc that require impersonal interaction and they tend to make these children exist in an isolated world, of them and their games.
When I was a child, the holidays were a period when kids are free to interact with their neighbors, family and even people they really do not know but have secretly wished to make contact with by visiting them in their homes. A typical Christmas day would usually start with the making of stew and jollof rice using the chickens that were killed or rather slaughtered the day before. There would also be a broth of pepper soup and a lot of fried assorted meats to accompany the main dish which is the jollof rice. Other goodies include chi-chi, cookies, cakes, ice cream, chocolate etc and different kinds of sodas to satisfy every sweet tooth.
The tradition of a Christmas tree and the opening of gifts on Christmas morning as done in the western world is not common back in the day in Warri. Children wake up in the morning and are really excited to take a bath and wear their "Christmas clothes." These clothes are new and have never been worn. They are bought specially for Christmas by dotting parents for the special day. The boys usually would wear a pair of trousers, a packet shirt, under wears, socks and shoes (everything new) and if lucky (especially if the report sheet from school for December was good) they would also have a plastic wristwatch and sunglasses. The girls usually get the same but instead of trousers and shirt; they get dresses with beautiful bows at the back. The dresses are paired with wide sun hats in addition to wristwatches and sun glasses. Any child privileged to get Christmas clothes can be deemed to have been adequately prepared to have a jolly celebration.
Once dressed, it is then breakfast time. The tradition is to start the day with a bowl of steaming hot pepper soup with boiled yam or plantain and red palm oil. It is believed that if you start the day with pepper soup, your stomach would be able to tolerate all the sweet treats that will be taken in the course of the day. In addition, the fact that most people especially kids would eventually indulged in over eating; there will be no adverse effect because the local spices in the pepper soup would protect the stomach from having any problem.
I remember back then, I usually try to skip breakfast, because to me it was not fun, way too boring and I did not care much for the spices either. I could hardly sit still, waiting for the time my mom would serve from the "Christmas stew" which has been assaulting my senses all morning. Once the jollof rice has been eaten and the fried chicken devoured, I set my eyes on sweets like sodas, ice cream, chocolate but most especially the Christmas cake! The beauty of Christmas is that there is no end to eating and there is no clear demarcation between breakfast, lunch and dinner. Continuous eating is allowed throughout the day once you have taken the miracle "pepper soup".
After all the eating, the new clothes no longer feel comfortable due to protruding stomach. Most kids are known to take a nap after the first bout of marathon eating so that the bugling stomach will lessen and the clothes will fit once more. Following the much needed nap, the action part of the Christmas begins. The clothes are put back on, sugary sodas and snacks quickly eaten and the adventure commences. Usually kids would have sought and gotten approval of all the homes they would be visiting from their parents. Goodbyes are exchanged because most moms would not see their kids again until dinner time. On the list of those to be visited are; extended family members, family friends, neighbors and even total strangers that kids have never had any interactions with but whom the kids are curious about. One Rule though, all these people must reside within walking distance from home.
Extended family members are visited first. On getting there, the mother in that household would have been expecting the kids, because there is every probability that her own kids would also gone on this visiting quest. Worthy of mention is that kids from the ages of three can go out on the visiting spree, so long as their older siblings would watch over them. The mom will quickly feed the kids with whatever goodies she has prepared for the Christmas celebration. Once the kids have had their fill, they bid their goodbye and appreciation for the meal. They then move to the next home on their list. Again, some moms have been known to not only provide a meal but as the kids are leaving, they are giving some cash (money)gift, which to the kids is like icing on the cake for the visit. The cash gifts are more treasured than any delicacy that the moms could have prepared.
For family and friends kids are predisposed to eat and drink freely, however, for neighbors and strangers whom the kids are just curious about, the kids usually reject all offers for a meal. Instead, it is the understood that the kids’ visit is a form of bearing good tidings/wishes to the visited. The moms in these homes would give the kids candies that they can take back home show to their moms. These treats would only be consumed if the mom of the visiting kids opined that the treats are safe (from spiritual/voodoo spells - story for another day) then the kids can have them under the watchful eyes of their mothers. A neighbor or stranger would only be doing the family of the visiting kids a huge kindness if she stuck to presenting only cash gifts to the kids. It's not as if, spiritual/voodoo spells cannot be cast on cash, but most people believe in my hometown, that witchcraft is easier gotten when eaten or drunk. Therefore, for people the moms are not familiar with, the kids are usually forbidden to eat but can only accept the sweet treats or cash which they bring home to mom: who either destroys it or prays over it before allowing her kids eat of it. Most moms allow the kids keep the cash gifts because the amounts are relatively small.
After all the visiting, eating and receiving of cash gifts (and they are usually in new notes), kids go back home with a full tummy and full pockets. On getting home, the practice is to take a quick shower and help out in the kitchen with the piles of dirty dishes from other visiting kids. Surprisingly, late in the evening on Christmas day, the dinner table is fully attended. Kids, who have spent the entire day eating round the clock, still have room in their tummies for more food!
Today, I look at the kids and how they spend Christmas day. Most just stay indoors with games and eat their own food. The society is such that neighbors and strangers living close by cannot be trusted to attend to ones kids due to the moral fall in the society. Kids have been abducted, raped or even killed in places just a few blocks from their homes. Before, it was the fear of witchcraft/voodoo but now, in addition to that, ones child could either be killed or emotional damaged. This is not to say these harms cannot happen to kids in the comfort of their own homes but why increase the chances.
Parents prefer the safety of their homes for their kids at Christmas time. If they have to go out visiting, they must be accompanied by either or both parents. Such visits are limited to family members. No neighbors and definitely no strangers.
I long for those days when kids can be free and feel safe to play on the street and every adult is seen and perceived as a parent. Those good old days, neighbors treat each other’s kid as theirs and so there was no reason for fear.
jollof rice: http://www.cookaround.com/cucina-internazionale/nigeria/primi-piatti/jollof-rice
Red pal oil: http://www.thebetterhealthstore.com/newsletter/111309_Red-Palm-Oil_02.html