Growing up in Nigeria, Christmas was the most anticipated season of the year. Its fever usually began months in advance, when leaves turned brown and crispy until they suddenly resigned from their branches. That feeling of excitement came with the dry, dusty winds of harmattan, which carried echoes of Christmas carols blasting from the record player. I am certain we drove our neighbors insane during those days, playing that Bonny M Christmas album over and over again.
The real experience for me was the yearly trip we took to my parents’ hometown, which we referred to as the Village or in the shortened phrase, “the villa.” Preparations for that trip required a lot of packing for a family of seven, which was quite a challenge since we used only one small jeep! And it wasn’t just human beings that occupied car space; it was tubers of yams, bags of rice, crates of soft drinks and other goodies, including suitcases! Only God knows how we managed to survive the two hour drive!
Well, we not only survived potential suffocation, we also triumphed over verbal confrontations among siblings, parents stopping mid-way to enforce discipline, intense traffic or “go slow,” car sickness on top of more jingle bell lyrics. And not to omit the most important aspect, surviving the traffic check points that were so customary in Nigeria (and still are) where police stopped cars to question drivers about their particulars when in fact, they only thing they cared for was a piece of Christmas bread in the form of cash.
We were glad to cross the River Niger Bridge, which never ceased to create a sense of wonderment for us for its historicity. This bridge led us straight to our hometown-our villa.
One of the highlights of those days was standing on dirt roads with cousins and siblings to catch a glimpse of engugu (masquerade) dancing to the chants and instrumental beats of young, shirtless men. The story that went around was that engugu whipped any child who dared to cross his path in the middle of his “thing.” So whenever we caught a glimpse of the excessively, decorated raffia figure, we ran towards the opposite direction, scared and yet thrilled at the adrenaline rush it created in our system. We always found ourselves returning to tease him a bit and then run again once he looked our way. We did this until an adult, catching sight of us, sent us home with a stern expression. We got the message often that engugu was not to be messed with. That it was actually a spirit, not a person in a mask. This was what we were told, and we believed it. If you saw some of engugu’s acrobatic feats, you would believe it too!
Being in the village also meant going to the most popular church in our new Christmas clothes and shoes. It also meant going home and eating jollof rice, fried chicken, moi-moi (bean cakes), plantain, pounded yam and vegetable soup etc. My siblings and I ate a heavy breakfast at my father’s house before quickly running to my uncle’s house where a lunch feast for the entire family clan was held. There was music, including a game or two of musical chairs for us children as well as dance competitions, which sometimes came with a little bit of award money from older relatives.
Our last stop was Grandma’s place-my favorite for many reasons. For one, Grandma still prepared her meals the old fashioned way-with firewood. The customary smoked fish and chicken she served us when we arrived still carried with it the smell of charcoal and burnt wood. Somehow, that was the best tasting meat I ever had. She also had childhood games from back in the day that were made of wooden boxes with hollow spaces and chiseled green stones. Those were light years away from the video games we were accustomed to playing in the city, but we didn’t mind at all. Then there were the animal skins for rugs, cowries (old monetary system) scattered all over the place and hand-made figurines made of the most polished clay I had ever seen. Little things like that served as a lesson for how things were.
The holiday lasted a week, and when the seventh day arrived, it brought heaviness to our hearts that we consciously refused to admit to ourselves and each other for fear of breaking down in tears. However, this left us counting down to the next year.
Forward to recent times. I still spend time with family; including cousins, aunts and uncles that were part of my memories growing up. Except now there is the customary gift exchange and snow; no engugu scaring us away and no grandma and the aroma of charcoal. Christmas is good, but I miss how it used to be in that little village many years ago, where times were simpler and the little things made you excited to be alive.