Christmas in Yaoundé (where I live for most of the year) is pretty much the same as Christmas in any big city: about two or three weeks before the twenty-fifth, everyone goes nuts. The roads become so trafficked and immobile, that they are barely short of impassible and anyone trying to navigate them is definitely ludicrous. The stores, big and small, are packed to the brim and overflowing. Everyone everywhere is grabbing presents off shelves and then waiting in mile-long lines to pay for them. Outside, there are loudspeakers playing Christmas music over, and over, and over, and over again, while the cars on the blocked-up roads are adding their own accompaniment of “honk-honks” and “beep-beeps.” In fact, besides the weather, Christmastime in Yaoundé may very well be almost identical to Christmastime in any large city in the western world (though probably on a smaller scale).
On the other hand, about 600 kilometers away, through the rainforest and across an international border, lies the village of Baboua. People there are celebrating a very different Holiday Season. There aren’t any large shopping centers for people to be packed in like sardines; in fact, there aren’t any shopping centers, period. The simple dusty road is just as devoid of traffic as it always is: a car or truck passes every hour or somaybe. Yet the same Christmas spirit is displayed throughout town. No matter where you go, you can hear the calls of “Bonne Fête,” “Joyeux Noël” and “Bonne Année,” which are akin to the North American calls of “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year.” People are wrapping up their presents to give to special family members and friends. It always amazes me how much people still rejoice in their meager surroundings. Even though most families will not have any Christmas decorations up and certainly not a Christmas tree, people still go around wishing each other “Merry Christmas,” singing African Christmas songs, and sharing their small Christmas meals.
Meanwhile, at our house on the American Station, there is a very different sort of Christmas going on. As soon as I get home on break, I open up the dusty Christmas boxes and my mom and I turn on the Christmas music (much to the dismay of my dad). The whole interior of the house is soon decorated and transformed with tinsel, Christmas lights, stockings, and the small, artificial Christmas tree. On Christmas Day, my dad makes up an absolutely scrumptious dinner, and we invite other missionaries over to celebrate with us. And as the adults converse on and on (as adults are wont to do), I sit and listen, reflecting on the Christmas Season.
When you really think about it, nearly everyone on earth celebrates the Holiday Season in one way or another. Whether they are Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or anything ranging to completely non-religious, Christmastime affects them somehow. One might stop and wonder (as everyone does in those cheesy Christmas movies we are forced to watch every year) what is the true meaning of all this cheerfulness and joviality?
Long ago, on a Christmas Day that most likely did not occur on December twenty-fifth, a tiny new-born babe tightly wrapped in rags lay in an itchy manger. His parents looked down at him with joyful tears in their eyes, praises on their lips, and wonder in their hearts. The tiny, unfocused eyes of the newborn looked back up, and he smiled a beautiful, toothless grin at his mother and father. From the heavens above, starlight shone down, and the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)
Baboua, Central African Republic
Photo: Hand-painted Christmas card by an anonymous Central African artist
Christa Troester attends Eighth Grade at Rain Forest International School in Yaounde, Cameroon. Her parents, Joe and Deborah are ELCA missionaries in Baboua, the Central African Republic. Joe serves as technical advisor for PASE, which provides clean drinking water and promotes good hygiene and sanitation to villagers. Pastor Deborah teaches at the Theological School in Baboua.