Slowly I am learning, many things are just not the same in Malawi and cannot be measured against Western standards. Understanding them requires seeing the world with new eyes. Christmas itself is a prime example, and it has taken me several days to come to grips with our experience. Coming into the Christmas season, it was obvious that Malawians do not celebrate Christmas like we do in the United States. Homes are not decorated with lights and Christmas trees; traditional carols are not played in stores and malls (except at Shoprite, one of the three upscale grocery stores in Blantyre, heavily catering to expats and the wealthy); Santa is unheard of. There are no wreaths, bright lights, mistletoe, eggnog, Christmas stockings, and reindeers to celebrate the season. We understood it was not customary to exchange gifts on Christmas day, but I suspected this was largely an economic issue. The poor did not exchange gifts, because they couldn’t afford to do so, while those with money managed, at the very least, to have something for their children to unwrap on Christmas morning.
Christmas morning I spent a couple of hours molding into cookies the molasses cookie dough Carole had prepared in the several days before Christmas, and popping them into the oven. Molasses cookies are one of the many traditional treats Carole prepares for the holidays. By late morning, we had assembled small bags of cookies for nine families, not enough cookies in any one bag to spoil a family, but just enough to let the families know we were thinking of them. We had made no appointments; the plan was to make very short visits to these families to drop off the modest gifts. We expected to catch most of the families at home, gathered with other family members and friends, preparing a Christmas dinner of rice or nsima and chicken.
Our expectations were only partially fulfilled. Eight of the nine families were at home—the Ntendas, Tsegulas, Bandas, Phiris, Brother Petro, the Mtuntalis, Tellas, and Malungas. Only Brother Sangala was not home, probably off in his home village visiting with family. If success is measured by short visits, we were very successful. We were back in our apartment within two hours. We did not however find families preparing elaborate meals or gathering for large family get-togethers. Certainly there was no evidence of gift exchanges or family caroling or elaborate celebrations. Indeed, the only way it seemed different was that family members were at home and the streets empty of the normal traffic. When we wished the families “Merry Christmas,” many were quick to say they were indeed thankful for the birth of the Christ child. It is easy for us to feel bad for the Malawians, knowing they are not celebrating Christmas with the bounties of life as we do at home. But the Malawians do not feel that way. They are thankful for whatever they have. It is sufficient for them.