it’s not really looking at all like Christmas

African Christmas

One of the advantages of living in Ghana, and I imagine any developing world  or Muslim country, is that you don’t have to face the Christmas retail frenzy. Christmas trees don’t appear in the shops in September, there is no insistent urging to buy, buy, BUY!

This is particularly true as we don’t live in the capital, Accra, where the developed world encroaches more strongly. For us, Christmas creeps in. I notice more Christmas ‘pins’ on my Pinterest stream, occasional promotional emails, and yesterday an Australian magazine I have a digital subscription to, brought me their annual Christmas issue. Some decorations have started to appear in the one ‘department’ store in Kumasi. I was so surprised that in a bizarre retail therapy knee jerk reaction, I bought a hot pink Christmas tree…with fairy lights too!

Last Christmas I was speaking to a friend, a long term expat resident of Kumasi. We were chatting about Christmas traditions, and how I enjoyed not being inundated with the retail pressure. She said to me, “Don’t you notice how much more rice and oil are in the stores? It’s all for Christmas you know, they are the typical Christmas gifts”. I was embarrassed that I had not recognized it, and that I found it completely depressing. Oil and rice for me, this over-privileged foreigner, were not the pretty frivolities and luxuries I associate with Christmas. But, of course, they represent a luxury for many people here.

We are not particularly traditional “Christmas people”, before we had children I was pretty happy to scrape through and enjoy the time off work. In the same way we are not particularly nationalistic, being an expat sometimes means you find yourself getting misty eyed over the most clichéd of things. Seeing a kangaroo on tv, or shorts printed with an Australian flag can bring out excited cries of delight. It’s the Steve Irwin syndrome, you don’t really realize how great these things are, until they are gone.

It’s funny the lengths we go to, to preserve even the silliest of traditions. Online shopping for Lego means using a overseas fixed IP address, ordering months in advance, shipping to a colleague’s house in Australia (no one delivers to West Africa…credit card fraud centre of the universe) before their last rotation home, so they can bring our children gifts in their suitcase; so we can put them in our suitcase and carry them to Europe to open on Christmas morning!! (don’t even think about it’s carbon footprint). Last year, a friend made a mercy dash to Accra to buy a ham, as there was none left in Kumasi. Think of the hams in the supermarkets in Australia, in Britain, in the US….can you imagine them ever running out?

The most common Christmas tradition of expats is to leave their adopted country. Among our small group of friends, the exodus has already begun. We find ourselves saying good-byes and see you in the new year. I know I am not alone in wanting to leave for the holidays, but I am a little embarrassed. Embarrassed to admit a deep desire not to be here at Christmas time (particularly as my birthday is around the same time). Of course, we could go to coast, and that would guarantee our traditional Christmas morning dip in the ocean, but I know it wouldn’t be the same. And so, we are escaping to Europe for a white Christmas. The European traditions of Christmas resonate more strongly with us than the opportunity of experiencing a Ghanaian Christmas, even though hot weather and morning swim would be guaranteed. The world over, people travel to see family and friends at Christmas time. As expats we find ourselves living far removed from our extended families, and many people travel home for just that reason, to reconnect with Christmas traditions, the strongest of which are seeing family and friends.

I know how fortunate we are that we can get on a plane, leave the dusty heat haze of Harmattan, and six hours later land in a winter wonderland of Christmas delights. The children, no, all of us, are thrilled to be experiencing our second white Christmas. And while there are not the catch-ups and Christmas drinks with old friends there will be visits with long-lost friends and extended family. Christmas day will not be in a family home, but in a hotel; there will be no prawns for breakfast and cold ham for lunch; but there will be our little family with lots of laughs, skiing and I’m sure some champagne too.

Sounds like we’ve created our own tradition…and isn’t that what’s Christmas is about?

13 responses to “it’s not really looking at all like Christmas

  1. We spent one Christmas in Gabon and it was certainly different. We didn’t see anything Christmassy until mid-December and of course for us Canadians, the 30 degree weather was uncharacteristic of the holidays for us.

    This year we’ll be staying in Stavanger but there’s about a 50% (or less) chance that it’ll be a white Christmas. We’re visiting Switzerland earlier in the month to get our snow fix but I’m excited to buy a tree and wrap some presents at our home this year – something we haven’t done in ages.

    Where in Europe will you be?


  2. What! You can buy ham in Kumasi these days? Amazing. When I first went to Ghana in 1993 I craved/em> a ham sandwich but there was no way I was going to get one anywhere I went. On subsequent visits tho I was so used to the food that I had no cravings for ‘western’ food at all, although my teenage son did.


    • Don’t get too excited! I’ve only bought ham once in Kumasi, and we all really crave it. I think my friend ordered it specially for Christmas. But even in our short time here (2 years) we’ve seen a lot of changes in Kumasi…banks have started to dispense 50GHC notes (a sign of people spending more I think), fetta cheese and cream in the stores, even occasional camembert! And just this week a really fabulous restaurant opened…it could be anywhere in the world. We always say we’d like to come back in 10 years, just to see the changes. Hope you have a great Christmas, and thanks for reading.


      • The surprises keep coming! 50ghc notes – I used to have trouble getting change for a ten. Well they say Africa is moving forward, let’s hope it trickles down. Have a lovely holiday.


  3. We are Americans who lived four years in Lagos, Nigeria, have been “home” for five and are about to embark on our next adventure to Jakarta, Indonesia. I have absolutely loved reading your blog recently. I have forgotten (or simply blocked out!) a lot of the difficulties of overseas’ living and I’m suddenly thinking, “oh my, am I ready for this?!” At least I know I won’t be alone. 🙂 thanks for sharing your life (and heart) with us. Stacey


    • Hi Stacey, Thanks for your lovely comment, it really made me day. Sometimes I wonder if I am too honest in the blog, and whether that comes across in a negative way; but pleased it resonated with you. Maybe I need to write a post about the wonderful things about being an expat! From friends reports, Jakarta sounds great (apart from the traffic!!), all the best for your move! Chrissie


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