The weekend before Christmas was our church’s planned Christmas party. Everyone had drawn a name and was meant to get a small gift for that person. The men would supply the meat, while the women provided and prepared everything else.
In Swazi fashion, the women gathered at the church by 7am to start the fire and begin the dicing and slicing. I walked the 5 minutes to the church, while leaving Cedar at home with Sean. She was sleeping, so he had a relaxing morning, while I sat with about 6 other women and some teenage girls. Since I was late, I was left to chop about 10 lbs of carrots, peel the boiled beets, and grate both beets and carrots.
During previous food-prep times like this, I felt incredibly awkward. I would stand around, asking one women who I knew well enough what I should do. I didn’t understand much, so I couldn’t chime in. This time, I still didn’t do a lot of talking in the larger group. I’ve found that my “international” personality is a much more “watch and learn” one that my American personality. When I was alone with just one other mom, I’d make small talk. Sometimes it’s really, really challenging because not many initiate a conversation with me. It seems we’re all afraid of each other’s languages. 🙂
By about 10, they did inform me it was time to go home and get cleaned up in order to return for church since all the food was finished. I offered to stay because no one else was walking away at that moment, but they shooed me off. Off I went. To nurse Cedar, wrap my gift, pack up some cups and last-minute supplies we needed, snag my Bible, and walk back to church with Sean and Cedar this time.
Church usually lasts from 11-1, but on that day, it went a little longer. I was grateful for the first of two preachers who actually shared a message about the Christmas story and coming of Christ. It has been my experience around holidays that the messages, songs, and services are not geared towards the Christian celebration. There’s no mention of an empty grave at Easter, no Lord-as-a-babe for Christmas. But this Sunday there was! It made church stretch longer, but it was worth it.
During church, Cedar does much better if a Swazi mom or girl holds her. After some time with Sean or I, she’ll get anxious and sqwuak quite a bit. It makes things challenging, especially because it’s either hold-her-in-your-lap-while-she-fusses, or let-her-crawl-in-the-dust-and-terrorize-people. We tag-teamed throughout the service and sighed a bit when it concluded after 2.5 hours.
Then came the gift exchanging. But first, a prayer over the gifts and givers. We had all brought our gifts to the front of the room and placed what would fit on a small wooden bench, which also double as our pulpit. The Sunday school children received a gift from their teacher. One-by-one, each small gift was picked up, the name was read, and we all waited patiently, expectantly as the recipient walked to the front, curtsied and received their gift with cupped hands – showed respect. At one point, after the children seemed to hesitate in approaching the front, Babe Dlamini said, “Hurry up! Go. It’s your teacher. Don’t be afraid.” The gift-giving procedded slightly faster after that encouragement!
After the children had received their gifts, there were still some without, and some recipients who hadn’t arrived to claim them. All the children without gifts made a line at the front. Once the teacher saw how many remained without gifts, she sent them back to their seats. I’m not sure if they’ll get gifts later, or just missed out. It did amaze me that almost no sadness or disappointment crossed the faces of the children who had no gift in their hands. Additionally, they were told to open them when they were home. Wakhile, the 5-year old daughter of a friend, and I giggled over what could be inside. She and her mother felt around, trying to guess. Her mother determined what it was. The suspense almost killed the little girl. It’s about the same everywhere isn’t it?
The adult’s gift-giving proceeded about the same. I had agonized a bit over what gift I would give to the young woman whose name I had pulled. In the end, I went with dishes. 2 dinner plates. 4 small coffee cups. And a packet of biscuits (hard cookies). Most adults didn’t open their presents at the church, but a few of them did. Everyone (including me) whose gifts I saw had some type of dish, tupperware, or kitchen item. Whew! I was relieved I had gone with my gut and bought dishes. I was uncertain the price range I was supposed to spend. I decided that a little spoiling was okay, so I spent a little bit more than I thought others would. But it was a perfect time to bless someone without sticking out – anonymous gifting- hello!
After we all received our packages, there was more waiting and planning and then finally we got to dish up the food. Platters were scooped out from the main bowls to serve the children outside. Make Gwebu piled on the rice. Make Zwane added the sauce and chicken. I piled on the salads -beet root, carrot, and potato. I apparently piled too much in the beginning because Make Zwane asked Make Gwebu to tell me to only do one scoop each! oops!
Shortly after eating, Cedar was getting unruly . . . aka she was biting Sean. So he took her home. I gobbled my food (at 2:30) and told the women I’d be back. I trotted home after Sean and Cedar to nurse her and put her down for a nap. I peed. Then trotted back to the church for the third time. Being within walking distance of church is super convenient and good for exercise. 🙂
Everyone was just chilling out. Most of the children had gone home, some of the adults had vacated. Those who were left were the young girls who were washing all the dishes (that’s the job. The mothers cook, the young girls wash the dishes. I’m actually not sure what the fathers do :/). We all lounged and relaxed. I sat perched pretty awkwardly on that bench – desperately trying to be present – but seriously tired and ready for an afternoon nap! It wasn’t too long when we all decided it was time to go.
I made it home and crashed on the couch, while Cedar was still napping. She took a hearty long nap, so I was able to pass out for 50 minutes while Sean went to work out. It was a good exhaustion. The one that comes from straining your ear to understand siSwati all day. The exhaustion that comes from walking up and down your dusty dirt track. And juggling a baby in church. And laughing with other women. And sweating in the extreme heat. And guessing presents with the young girl beside you who plays with your daughter. An exhaustion that ends the day with a contented sigh and remembers the moments with a smile, all the tired and hurt forgotten, with only the memories of love, joy, shared time, and beautiful people remaining, which is a lot of what Christmas is all about, isn’t it?
May your days be rich with passion and energy. May you be exhausted from all the love and joy.