The first thing about Christmas in my family is the need to emphasize the CHRIST in Christmas. I was born to Ethiopian immigrants. The practice of Christianity in Ethiopia is so old that Sheba was our queen. Thus, I spent my Christmas Eves going to church until mid-night in silent prayer as the priest’s chants echoed down the street praising His name. I would go to bed and be awakened by the smell of lavender incense and fresh bread from the oven, while masterfully devising a plan to steal a piece of the baklava that the women in the family would bake sheets upon sheets of.
The morning was always filled with my rumbustious yelling, demanding to open gifts. As my mother would pull herself out of bed to make a cup of coffee, I was already tearing the wrapping paper off the gifts. I would carefully inspect each one, deciding there and then if I liked it. Breakfast was always a simple spiced tea, and a piece of fresh wheat bread that my mother would make the day before. The smell would still be lingering as she handed me a large piece smothered in margarine and jam.
But Christmas afternoon was always my favorite. My neighbor’s grandmother would come to our house with a container of her homemade tamales, and in return we would give her a sheet a baklava. As a child I never questioned the tradition but now see it as one of my precious childhood memories. Although, even as a child I knew enough to answer the door myself, so I could hide a few tamales before anyone else got to them.
As the afternoon went on, each relative would come through the door with a kiss on each of my cheeks. They would exclaim how big I had gotten, and women would huddle into the kitchen and gossip, while the men would claim the TV and try to find any sporting event to watch. As the eldest it was my responsible to watch after all the kids, a duty I still have a love-hate relationship with. After finally getting each of my six siblings and cousins to calm down and wash their hands we would all sit down to Christmas lunch. My mother would create vats of wat, and pile them high on her good china. We would all sit around the dining room table, loud and tipsy as could be, passing around different foods. My favorite was and is the doro wat, a chicken stew specially made for holiday’s that takes eight hours to simmer to get the spices mixed just right, and I would pile it high on my plate, and would always sneak an extra bite in before grace. We would laugh, fight, and laugh again, and after lunch was over the adults would sit and drink coffee, while us kids got to drink an extra soda and eat all the baklava we wanted.
When I would go back to school and the other kids would talk about what gifts they got, and how many cookies they ate, they couldn’t understand why I was in love with this baklava thing. Then some would be curious enough to ask what I did for Kwanza, and I when asked what Kwanza was, they asked again if my family was African. When I would say yes, yet that only seemed to confuse them more. What my classmates didn’t understand was that Ethiopia was never conquered by a foreign nation, so no slaves were ever taken to the Americas to combine the different African religions with Christianity to make Kwanza. I was just as confused by them as they were by me. I could never understand why they would all compete to see whose family had the bigger Christmas ham when they all claimed to be Christian. No Christians I knew ate pork, so who were all these kids? Later in my childhood I found company in the few Mexican students in class who were kind enough to explain to me that, “White people forget that you’re not supposed to eat pork, like they forget to say grace before they eat.” That made perfect sense to my nine-year-old self, and I went along with it without further question.
The more I talked to the Mexican students in my class, the more I realized we had in common. Neither of our families ate pork; some of them didn’t speak English so it was up to us be the translators; it was always on the eldest to take care of everyone else; and food, always food. They ate tortillas with their hands like we ate injera with wat, they put their stew in a clay pot and let it simmer for hours just like us. Though their food had a more earthy, almost sweet profile, that combination with the spiciness was just as flavorful as my mother’s wat ever was, and I fell in love it with all.
When I was twelve I asked my mom on a whim why on Christmas our neighbors’ grandmother brought us tamales. She told me right after my parents moved into the neighborhood they were the first people to greet them and brought them housewarming gifts. Their mother would come over and help my mom when she needed someone to watch me as a baby, and my mom would watch their son. The Christmas after they moved in was the first time they brought the tamales and the grandmother explained it was their tradition to bring this dish to your neighbors on Christmas. My mother, not knowing what to do, gave her some baklava and explained that this is what we give our neighbors on Christmas. The grandmother was worried that she wouldn’t like the tamales and my mother feared they wouldn’t like the baklava, but they were both wrong in the best way. And the tradition stuck.
This one act of thankfulness is something I relish in. These people who didn’t have to walked up to the new neighbors with funny accents and welcomed them without question. They took the time to get to know them enough to trust them with their child. Thus, to show this mutual respect and appreciation, they didn’t get my parents a mainstream gift from the department store, but took the time to introduce a little of their culture to them, and my parents felt safe enough to return the favor. As I got older I noticed that the grandmother didn’t give anyone else in the neighborhood tamales, and specifically would hand deliver them herself. I realized this is the perfect example of an peaceful exchange of culture, and in a world where that seems less likely every day it’s nice to be reminded in the humblest of moments that your neighbors are the ones who will be there for you. This is possibly the best gift Christmas ever gave me: being able to appreciate my own culture, and take the time to appreciate someone else’s.