There are no ornaments on the lawns, no wreaths on the doors, or decorated trees inside. The few shops in town have no displays, no marked-down sales, and no last minute shoppers. There are no manger scenes in front of churches or Christmas pageants, plays, or parties….anywhere. Santa Claus or Père Noël does not exist in the minds of children lying on their mats or under mosquito nets in mud brick homes this night. Cookies and milk will not be set out for twilight visitors ….and stuffed stockings, wrapped gifts, or festive meals will not be had on Christmas Day. The memories I had as a child on Christmas morning in New England are so different than those of our own children who grew up in Africa….not better or worse…just different.
You see Christmas is celebrated in the Congo in a way that highlights the occasion and not the amenities. The season is a time of joyful anticipation of promises to come rather than the physical satisfaction of things received. The ‘culture shock’ experienced by a visitor from the U.S. who happened to be in the Congo over Christmas would pale in comparison to the shock experienced by a Congolese adult or child who was suddenly transported into our U.S. culture on December 24th and gazed upon plastic sleighs on shingled roofs, ornamented trees in living rooms, and bearded white-headed men of respectable age parading around in red suits with flannel hats. It is not that any of these things are wrong….they are just different; not quite symbolic of the birth of a King in a lowly manger in Bethlehem to our visitor from a small town in the Congo.
How is Christmas celebrated in the Congo? I imagine in a way closer to the habits of the early church communities in Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, and Philippi.
Christmas is indeed a holiday in the Congo. Church bells start ringing at sun-up and by 8am people overflow the rows of wooden benches. Congolese in general love singing. For some it is a catharsis for the trials of daily life, but for many it is an expression of joy, adoration, and love. And can they sing! Boys’ choir, girls’ choir, men’s choirs, mothers’ choirs…they come up in turn and try to outperform the others. You can’t sing without dancing and you wouldn’t be in church without your cleanest and brightest article of clothing. Mothers who labor in the field day after day in red dirt furrows show up in bright dresses and sing as if there is no tomorrow. Their songs, their joy, their adoration, are the gifts they bear to a risen Christ, to a King who was once a baby in a manger.
Christmas in the Congo; void of the tinsel, toys, trinkets and turkeys……yet full of song, spirit, solace, saintliness, and satisfaction. Where will your heart be this Christmas day?
With Christmas wishes from home......where that may be,
Ann & Bill Clemmer
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo