You all know the song. It’s inescapable this time of year, and it goes “Have yourself a very merry Christmas,” and then continues…
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now
If the fates allow… Well, let me tell you about a Christmas that wasn’t merry. At least, it didn’t start out that way. In fact, it started off as downright depressing (Don’t worry, it got better). It was the first Christmas of my Peace Corps service, and this is the tree we had. Yes – that little thing there. You see where I’m coming from.
Next to it are some packets of Vache Que Rit (aka The Laughing Cow cheese) and a bottle of Maggi sauce. I’m not quite sure why we put them by the tree – maybe as a poor man’s substitute for milk and cookies. The tree was a fake, because we were in Cameroon, and pines are a bit thin on the ground in Africa. My parents had mailed it to me, along with miniature decorations, and we’d set it up in the Peace Corps staff house of Garoua, capital of the North Province in Cameroon, where several volunteers stayed while finishing their language training. The rest of us, having passed our tests, had all gone off to our individual villages two weeks before.
Those were two of the longest weeks of my life. I felt isolated, alone – the only American in a Cameroonian village – and somehow expected to start projects with farmers in the fields. But that could wait until after the holidays. For the moment, everyone said “Rest. Relax. You should adjust first.”
So I adjusted by fleeing back to Garoua and spending Christmas eve at a hotel, watching Cameroonians hold a dance party, shaking and grooving to hip-hop made indecipherable by scratchy speakers. I can remember crying, because I missed my family and wanted to be somewhere familiar for the holidays.
On Christmas morning we gathered at the training house, and looked dejected and lost as we lay on piles of mattresses left over from training. Listening to John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) – also known as So This Is Christmas – probably didn’t help. Strike that, I know it didn’t help. A song that says “So this is Christmas / And what have you done? Another year over / And a new one just begun” is not an appropriate salve for the spirits of people who’ve left behind everything familiar to spend Christmas on a foreign shore. What, indeed, had we done?
Finally someone just came out and said it: this was the worst Christmas ever. We all grunted and agreed, and suddenly it didn’t seem so bad. It felt as if merely acknowledging our dejection cleared the air. We began to stir from the mattresses – even to smile a little. I handed out some lollipops I’d bought at the “expat store” the day before, and Lennon stopped singing. But in the end, you know what helped the most? Watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Weird, right? Something about those upbeat songs, the connection with childhood, and the silliness of watching a cartoon clock arguing with a candelabra…
You know what? I take it back. It wasn’t so bad after all. I can honestly say the rest of my service went uphill from there, and I learned to be grateful for the little things. So I guess what I’m saying is, be grateful this holiday season. And have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now.