We pored over the Sears Roebuck Catalogue, my sisters and I. It was our first Christmas in Africa. We’d traveled halfway around the world on a British passenger liner. Aboard that massive ship were all our worldly belongings.
With a strict budget, four months in advance of Christmas, we each had a turn at the catalogue. As we made our selections, Mom carefully entered them on the order form. This was top-secret business!
In 1960 we used aerograms or reel-to-reel audio tapes to communicate with family – and in emergencies or for super special occasions, telegrams. Soon we would live nine days by mule to the nearest road, and another half day by Land Rover to the nearest city. But for now, we were safely ensconced in the American section of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
As Christmas approached we – ranging in age from twelve to four – began anticipating the arrival of our gifts from America. Certain traditions we would be able to keep. Our favorite holiday songs, a gift wrapping party on Christmas Eve with homemade donuts and hot apple cider. In my imagination, I could already smell the cinnamon and cloves. One sibling would leave the room and the rest of us would wrap their gifts, whispering so as not to give away Christmas secrets. And, some traditions we had to adapt. Christmas lights were strung along windows instead of a tree because evergreens don’t grow where we were in Africa.
On Christmas Eve, Dad was due back from a mapping mission in the bush when Mom got a notification from the Ethiopian customs office. We had six packages waiting for inspection and pickup. We children jumped up and down in our excitement. Yes, of course we would clean the house whilst Mom was gone! And, yes, we older ones would take care of the younger. And hurry, hurry please!
Mom was gone for hours. Katie and I fixed sandwiches for lunch. We worried about having time for the yeasty donuts to rise, so we could fry them for our evening wrapping party. Late that afternoon, we heard the squeak of the compound gate, and Mom drove slowly in. Out we rushed to meet her – and our boxes.
With tears in her eyes, Mom explained that the boxes were our schooling materials from Boston, not Christmas presents. The Christmas presents hadn’t arrived.
But how, how, how could we celebrate Christmas morning gift giving with no gifts?
We carried the boxes into the schoolroom, and Mom and I began making donuts. I’m sure I was a sorry sight, shoulders slumping, dejected sighs. But Mom had a plan. That night, Dad arrived just in time for our giftwrapping party. Donuts and cider in hand, we sent each child from the room, and cut the picture of their gift out of the Sears Roebuck catalogue. With love, and intention, we put each picture in a box, wrapped it just as carefully as if it had been the real gift, and placed it under our manger scene.