December 29, 2014

Christmas Contrasts by Ruth L. Snyder

The Christmas memories I have from my childhood are very different from most of the ones my friends have. My parents introduced me and my siblings to many North American traditions like decorating a Christmas tree, writing Christmas letters, exchanging gifts, and reading the Christmas story, but because we lived in southern Africa, Christmas also used to mean celebrating the end of another school year, Summer holidays, going swimming outdoors, having a barbeque, eating watermelon and popsicles, having beggars show up at the door asking for "Christmas" (a gift of some kind), and all night services at our local church.

 I'm richer for these experiences, because I understand that Christmas means different things to people. I also learned to focus on the true meaning of Christmas instead of decorations, snow, or turkey. Relatives were introduced to me by way of pictures and letters. (I was five years old before we returned to North America for our first furlough.)

While many parents in North America fret about their children receiving too many gifts, my parents worried about not having any gifts for us at all. We depended on monthly support cheques arriving via the infamous mail system. Sometimes an envelope made the journey from North America to southern Africa in two weeks. Other times it took a more circuitous route that lasted up to two months. In the early 1970's we didn't have the luxury of e-mail and phone calls were only made if there was an emergency.

One December our support cheque did not arrive. My mother became even more creative than usual with our meager food supply. When Christmas day arrived, our parents gave each of us a new Bible (The Living Bible, paraphrased by Kenneth Taylor), the only gifts they had purchased ahead of time. I don't remember feeling deprived. We still had food to eat and we were together as a family.

The next year my parents received extra funds, so they decided to make up for the previous year and ensure our Christmas was extra special. We were treated to an abundance of food, and there was a huge pile of presents under the tree. As children we picked up on the excitement demonstrated by our parents. On Christmas morning we laughed and shrieked as we ripped paper and uncovered gift after amazing gift. However, half an hour later, all four of us children had left our treasure trove of gifts and we were outside making up our own fun with the barrels in which our possessions had been shipped to Africa. One of us would get inside a barrel and the others would roll it down a hill. After we tired of the dizzy spells this created, we stood on the barrels and had races with each other. The barrels were played with many more hours than any of the fancy gifts.

Most Christmases from my childhood were filled with laughter, food, and family. One Christmas stands in stark contrast to the rest. Early in December that year, my dad came down with influenza. My father was usually strong and healthy. (His African nickname was "Big Bull Elephant.")

However, this time Daddy was sick for weeks. He couldn't keep any food down. My mother spent most of her time at his bedside, but she still made an effort to prepare for Christmas as usual. Visits to the doctor didn't yield any answers. He progressively became weaker and weaker. I remember wondering if my daddy was going to die. None of us felt like eating. The mood was dark. I'm not sure when things turned around, but my dad eventually recovered fully.

My family returned to Canada to stay when I was eleven years old. It was then that I began to recognize how different my Christmases in Africa were from the way most North Americans celebrate the event. However, our family did have many traditions that remained constant, no matter where we lived. We still put up a Christmas tree, but in Canada we enjoyed the experience of going hunting for a real evergreen tree. We still read the Christmas story before we opened our presents, but in Canada we were able to enjoy Christmas programs complete with drama and music. Instead of listening to The Messiah on cassette tape, goosebumps broke out on my arms as I stood and sang The Hallelujah Chorus with hundreds of people. We still enjoyed our usual treat of pecan pie, but we also enjoyed a multitude of other candies and desserts.

As a parent, I have enjoyed passing on many of the traditions I grew up with, while also making a conscious effort to share how different Christmas can be in other parts of the world. Although my children have never celebrated Christmas in Africa, they have cousins who have given them personal glimpses into other cultures. My children have also learned to reach out to others at Christmas through caroling, serving in a soup kitchen, visiting retirement homes, sending gifts in shoe boxes to children who may not have any toys otherwise, and sending cards to missionaries and others serving overseas.

I'm thankful for my Christmas memories and the way they still impact me, my family, and those around us. What Christmas memories are you thankful for?

Ruth L. Snyder was privileged to spend her early years in southern Africa where her parents served as missionaries. Ruth used Botswana as the setting for her novella, Cecile's Christmas Miracle. She now resides in northeastern Alberta with her husband Kendall, and their five children. Learn more about Ruth, her writing and photography, and her life adventures at


  1. Ruth, two statements struck me.
    First, you said that as children we picked up on the excitement demonstrated by our parents. Second, the dark atmosphere during the Christmas when your father was so sick.

    It reminds me that as parents and grandparents, our state of mind, our focus, our thrill is what influences the children around us. I can be over-the-moon excited about the Christmas story! And happy about our abundance. That's what I'd like to pass on to the kidlets in my life.

  2. Great memories Ruth! I was never exposed to the missionary life, so this was neat to learn a bit about your experiences! I love your piece about your fun with the barrel!

  3. Bobbi,
    I was reminded of the influence parents and other caregivers have as I wrote the post. I'm glad that came through.
    Our family will laugh about the barrel fun for many years to come :)

  4. What great memories. I loved to read about your experiences, Ruth. And especially the fun with the barrel.


  5. PS. I can relate to the dark feeling at Christmas. My dad passed away just days before Christmas a number of years ago and though we carried on and ate turkey and made little jokes, there was such a strange feeling of emptiness that felt horrible.

    I'm so glad your dad recovered then and that you have had many years since with his presence in your life.

    B :)

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  7. I definitely related to your Mom in this post, Ruth, in living overseas and trying to make Christmases as meaningful as possible for our three kids, although quite different from Canadian Christmases. We started our own traditions which our kids continue to this day. God is good.


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