My Christmas Seasons in Ghana and the United States

1. I Wonder…

Christmas in Ghana always began with a warm “It is Jesus’ birthday month” declaration at the end of church from my pastor and a card.

My family traditionally wrote the first ones to our neighbors, the Datsas. Maame Datsa always greeted us at the gate. She was one and a half years older than me, the perfect sandwiched age between my sister and me, making her the most evenly shared friend for us, and the perfect arbiter for my conflicts with Karen. Come the first of December, Karen and I would race to the gates of our family and family-friends, and ring the bell, attempting to beat them in the card delivery as they beat us last year.

These cherished letters from families in Ghana did not just end up forgotten in drawers, nor were they treated with the feigned enthusiasm of a teenager on their sixteenth birthday, who, when opening a card from an aunt, is often keener to discover a crisp bill or two with Benjamin Franklin printed on it than savoring the heartfelt words. These Christmas cards were the treasures of the season, each one read and cherished, their words resonating more than any cash could. Instead of ornament-adorned trees, we placed these cards in the crevices of the branches and they breathed life onto our artificial evergreen.

The houses in Ghana did not dress up for Christmas. Only its inhabitants did. Unhindered by the winter’s chill, one perk of existing so close to the equator, the girls and women I knew embraced the freedom of spaghetti-strapped dresses on Christmas day. However, we always armed ourselves with a short-sleeved bolero shrug once we entered the church premises to avoid being the gossip fodder of the day. Planning our Christmas attire was an event in itself, often weeks in the making. Sometimes, it meant a trip to the tailor for a new Kente ensemble, carefully crafted to coordinate with the family. Our homes might have stayed plain and the same throughout the year, but we certainly did not.

Sandwiched between my parents, Karen and I would watch the children in bible study who were selected for the nativity scene performance, pining for the day we, too would have the opportunity. We prayed for the sick and the poor and had special offerings for the homeless.

Church was my earliest encounter with Santa Claus, although I met him then as Father Christmas. He had deeply melanated skin, just like me, and there was no way his familial roots lay in the North Pole’s frosty climes. His attire was a striking red suit, which shimmered with gold instead of the conventional white fur trim. He wore sandals in place of boots.

As I shook Father Christmas’s damp hands and stared at his sweat-drenched face at age five, I forwent my prayer request for one simple question. Why are you wearing a thick coat when it is hot outside, and the fans are broken?

From the lap of Father Christmas, I found myself on the leather seats of Dad’s Nissan pickup en route from one family event to another. The heart of our celebration was at Grandpa Chris’s house because he had the most spacious compound. My father, too busy to cook a meal, always brought drinks for the occasion. We sang “Feliz Navidad” and took sips of our Fanta and Malta in between the verses and the chorus. We ate foods indigenous to Ghana like Waakye and Jollof Rice during the dance breaks. When we were not up and talking to family and friends or neighbors of Grandpa Chris, curious about all the noise, we sat on white folding chairs he borrowed from coworkers and family members. Each year, he remained optimistic the seats would be more than enough, yet they inevitably fell short. When guests outnumbered chairs, I performed the act of giving up my seat as my dad and grandparents looked over, smiling at me. The laughter of my cousins in the backyard guided me, and I would join them as they jumped rope or hopscotch.



2. As I Wander

Christmas in America always began with the changing of the store aisle to red and green paraphernalia, carols on radio streams and a “What do you want for Christmas?” from a fourth-grade classmate while we strolled into class the day after Thanksgiving break.

“Like, what do you mean?”

“Have you made your Christmas list yet?”


With a look of slight pity, she began, “It is ok. Do not worry.” She patted me on the back. “I finished mine yesterday. I can show it to you if you want.”

And so, I arrived at yet another introduction to American Culture, the Christmas list. A catalog of wants and wishes, meticulously curated and continuously revised, like a stockbroker’s portfolio. From the hefty Dow Jones of the iPhone to the more affordable stock, the fad of Silly Bandz, she curated a list to ensure a “successful” Christmas. The pressure began to get to me palpably.

As December rolled in, under pressure from my sister and me, my mom agreed to transform our home. Stockings hung by the fireplace, and a towering tree, a natural evergreen adorned with lights and ornaments, sat in our living room. The cards we wrote and delivered were met with a confused “thanks” but no card in return. As December passed by, the bottom of our tree filled with presents, and the omnipresent stress of finding the perfect gift for everyone filled our homes.

I had scribbled down a list of things I wanted. An iPhone like Emily’s, some UGG boots, and a mix of other toys and products sourced from the lists of my classmates. The excitement was tinged with a strange, hollow feeling, but I pushed it aside.

The Santa spectacle added another layer of bemusement. I had met Father Christmas back home, a man whose melanin-rich skin and sandal-clad feet were etched in my memory. The multiple, interchangeable Santas in malls were all suspiciously pale and boot-wearing. The first time I saw one of the imposters at the Opry Mills Mall, I walked up to him, sitting on his lap, and whispered, “You are not Father Christmas.”

When all he responded with was a “Ho ho ho,” I realized utterly that this was not a figure I would put any of my beliefs in. When I shared my skepticism about Santa and some holes in the logistics of gift delivery with classmates, I was met with their wide-eyed disbelief and occasionally tears.

I gave up on showing them the light.

When Christmas arrived, I fully bought into the spirit of the list.

Karen came home one day from school, mentioning cultural references she did not understand and with that began the Christmas Movie list we needed to watch. Her friends loved Elf but when the credits rolled, Karen turned to me and declared, “that was really stupid.” We moved on to the sampling of Candy Canes and Christmas Bark. As a firm believer that mint needs to remain strictly in the domain of toothpaste and nothing else, I was not thrilled but nonetheless, I tried it.

Mom then laid some markers and A4 papers for us after we told her about Christmas lists.

While initially sourced from the desires of my classmates, the things on my Christmas list, every one of them, became my wants, too. The moment of truth came on Christmas morning. The air was thick with expectation as gifts were exchanged.

My sister and I played with our Nerf guns, fourth on both of our Christmas lists, before abandoning them on our living room floor after thirty minutes of intense combat. Our living room became a wasteland of wrapping paper, silly bandz, Webkins, and American Girl Dolls that we squealed about and then abandoned after an hour of utmost affection.

But amidst the rustle of wrapping paper, the two things Karen and I prayed for after writing the mat the top of our list, the iPhone and UGGs, were absent.

In its place were other gifts, thoughtful perhaps, but not what I hoped to cheekily brag with my friends about most come the first day of spring semester. Without the rest of my extended family to gather with or family friends to exchange cards with, I inhaled the cold air of the consumerist Christmas frenzy of the holiday. I felt disappointment and then the subsequent embarrassment at my disappointment.

Each year, as the Christmas season approaches, I find myself instinctively measuring the present against a backdrop of my Ghanaian childhood. Far from a lamentation of loss as I once saw it as, it becomes an opportunity to fortify my previous memories with the present. In Ghana, Christmas was a mosaic of community, warmth, and shared traditions, where the value lay in togetherness and the joy of simple, heartfelt gestures. This yearning for a sense of community led mom, Karen, and me to a congregation of Ghanaians we found in church, a group of individuals far from their families, just like us. Together, we began to recreate the Christmases of our homeland, alternating homes and echoing the warmth I cherished at Grandpa Chris’s house. Our gatherings, though miles away from Ghana, brought back the essence of those festive celebrations. They are the ones to whom we gave holiday cards.

The holiday season though wrapped in wreaths and cheer, can also be veiled in sadness. I found that reducing my desires simply to a few words on a list with red and green crayola markers did not convey what I wanted the holiday season to mean for me.

When I turned thirteen, I discarded the list. The joy of Christmas did not come from every item being fulfilled but in the thoughtful gestures, like when my mom replaced my favorite shoes that I would accidentally ruin, or when Karen gifted her sweater, having noticed my lingering glances towards it.

The joy spilled from the warmth of Pepper Soup, lovingly prepared by Ms. Boms from church. She dropped it off at our house the day before the Christmas party; I always snuck myself a bowl before disguising the container to ensure the illusion that soup’s level remained untouched.

The joy bubbled up with each 6 a.m. call from Grandpa Chris, who, forgot the time difference each year and woke me up with a rendition of  “Feliz Navidad.”

The joy, little by little, re-emerged with communal experiences, shared meals, and the re-knighting of a tight community.