We are about to enter the 3rd week of Advent. Advent is one of my favorite seasons in the church. It always has been. I love the preparation for Christmas and the traditions surrounding the season. I love that it is something I can celebrate from Tanzania in much the same way as I do at home. It seems like there are very few things for which I can say this.
This is not to say that my Advent celebration this year mirrors the ones I have experienced in the past. This is not a bad thing, though. In fact my Christmas preparations have changed countless times in my life, as most things have. As with all good traditions, a few things have remained constant throughout the years.
I remember as a child the anticipation of Christmas. I was always so excited to pick out gifts for my family members. I remember family shopping trips where we would pile our coats into the shopping cart so we could cover the gifts inside and keep them secret from those we bought them for. Then, with a cart full of gifts and winter coats, my mom would head to the register while we occupied ourselves somewhere else. This was only part of the fun of the season.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, often the next day, we would begin decorating the house. First would come the Christmas tree. We always had a fresh tree growing up. We bought one from Noel, the tree guy, or bundled up, loaded up the sled, and drove into the mountains to cut one ourselves. It was always fun to try to find the perfect tree, no matter where it came from. There was one nursery-grown tree we found that was the perfect shape and height, so we had to get it. It looked REALLY silly once it was strapped onto our 1986 Toyota Tercel, though. We had gotten so caught up in its beauty that we forgot to think about its size. We had to crawl inside the car while my dad and the man at the nursery tied it to the car, so they could lift the branches up for us. It must have looked ridiculous as the car drove home with branches that fell inches from the ground! I wish I could have seen it from the outside!
It probably looked a bit like this one!
Another oversized tree came from one we had cut down ourselves. It is always fun to go out and cut our own. We stomp around through the snow for a couple of hours looking at every tree we see. When they grow wild, it is much harder to find the “perfect” tree, but we always try! It can’t be too short, too tall, or have a bald spot. Often the ones we saw from a distance with the perfect shape were two trees growing close together. On this occasion, we found the perfect tree. Its shape was very much like the ones we could find from Noel. There weren’t any bald places. It only had one trunk. The problem was that the tree was probably a Lodgepole Pine, with the branches at the top of what looks like a telephone pole. This meant cutting down the tree, then cutting off the almost 5 feet of bare log before it could fit on top of the minivan we had at this point. It’s a good thing we had such a large vehicle. When we got home, Dad posed in front of the house with the tree, holding the stump in one hand and the tree in the other. Partly because of the height of the tree and partly because of the angle of the picture it appears as though the top of the tree is higher than the house! He had to remove about another 3 feet of trunk before it would fit in the house. I wish I had this picture here so you could all see it!
Once the tree was up, it was time to decorate. Dad would get out the ladder and climb up to the loft in the garage. We would help him get down the boxes containing decorations. This was as much like opening presents as Christmas morning. Getting out the crèche and nativity scene, Mom’s Santa and snowman collections, and the collections of ornaments that always cover our tree was like remembering Christmases past. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton would serenade us as we began decorating the tree, beginning with Dad putting on the lights before being his fight with the lights on the outside of the house.
Part of our decorating efforts always included the creation of our family Advent Wreath. Branches cut from our tree would be added to the wreath, which most often took the shape of a barbed wire wreath affixed to a board created by my dad and reused every year. Candles were added and the wreath took its place on our table, where it would stay until Christmas morning. Each Sunday at dinner, we would fight to be the one to light one of the candles. We would talk about why we were lighting the candle that week and enjoy a candle-lit meal.
As I got older and moved out of the house, I had to find my own way to keep these traditions. I opted for a plastic tree the first year in my own house. I didn’t want the hassle of cleaning up the needles that always fall. Not having a plethora of decorations from many years of tree decorating, I opted for a theme the first year. That year, I decided to fold paper cranes which were not only cheap, but also full of symbolism that I love! I also began to grow my own collection of decorations. In the years since, I have gotten a fantastic nativity scene, a few lighted outdoor decorations, and a couple of things to make the inside of my house feel like Christmas. Now, I not only got to help decorate my parent’s house, but they would often come help me decorate my own.
Mom's tree in her classroom this year looks a lot like mine did the first year, but is a bit bigger.
I also created my own Advent Wreath, but without others in the house to fight for the right to light each week’s candle, I was forced to come up with another way to make the candle lighting meaningful. I turned to the internet. I found a wonderful website that I have used every year since. Creighton University’s “Praying Advent” page has a prayer you can say every day during Advent and is adapted for each year.
I still was excited to find the “perfect” gift for everyone on my list, but was able to spend more time deciding what that perfect gift was. I often started looking much before Thanksgiving and spent the time during Advent wrapping and delivering.
The Flame Tree at CAMS is looking Christmassy, but not in a snow-covered tree sort of way.
This year, I am finding my preparations during Advent to be very different, but with striking similarities. First of all, it’s not cold! I’m used to walking outside and having my nose hairs freeze together while I’m bundled in the coat I affectionately refer to as my “Nanook of the North” coat, Kermit the Frog hat with the ear flaps, scarf, mittens, and fake fur lined snow boots. It’s always comforting in December to sit and watch Christmas movies under a quilt with a mug of hot chocolate while the snow falls outside. Not this year! This is one of the most prominent differences. Instead of Nanook, I’m wearing sleeveless shirts outside, in my sandals and sunscreen. It’s not snowing, but we have started getting the occasional hard rain! The quilt on my bed acts more like a pillow than a covering, and I haven’t been sleeping with even a sheet over me.
I decided that I really did need an advent wreath this year. If nothing else, it would help it feel more like Christmas was coming. I had to become creative this year without Walmart here to help me get all the supplies I needed. It was time to be creative! Luckily, I had a box large enough to make a good sized wreath. After tracing around a couple of plates to give me the wrath shape and cutting out four of these, I used a glue stick to make two 2-layer pieces, and cut holes for candles in one of the pieces. Then I cut several layers of small cardboard pieces and stacked them on top of each other with glue between each layer. After this, I glued the whole thing together. Then, I cut strips of fabric and wrapped the wreath to make the body. With 4 candles attached in the pre-cut holes, I have a wreath I would have been proud of even at home.
My friend Maria helped me cut my tree this year. It’s not the perfect tree shape, and there was no danger of its branches dragging the ground as I carried it home. It’s not plastic, but there is no danger of needles making a mess on my floor. It is covered with decorations I have purchased here in Tanzania, and even includes a snowman sent from home. True, it is a branch cut from a plant outside which has been stuck into a can of sand for support, but Charlie Brown would be proud!
I have also slowly been gathering gifts for friends and family back home. Shopping in Dodoma is fun and it makes my mom laugh every time I tell her about something I bought from “some guy on the side of the road.” I’ve found some pretty great treasures and I’m excited to gift them.
Even though I know Christmas is less than 2 weeks away, it still doesn’t feel like it. Stores aren’t full of decorations that have been gathering dust since October. The only Christmas music I hear comes from my computer. It is hard for me to imagine a Christmas without it being cold outside, but Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere is an experience I am looking forward to nonetheless.