We all know what Christmas is about: the pomp and the colour, family, sumptuous meals, the games and the laughter – the most wonderful time of the year. But not if you are the one cooking, and scrubbing, huddling your younger cousins together and simply being turned into the errand girl.
That was me in 2005. Instead of dazzling in my new blue sequin party dress – the one that comes with a hat, gloves and matching shoes – I spent the better part of Christmas in the kitchen, and in my ‘house clothes’. I never got to wear my new clothes that year and to be fair, neither did my siblings. Kukhu Nanjala, our family matriarch, was in Nairobi for the holidays. Instead of all roads leading to the village, as they would every other Christmas, they brought them to our home, along with the entire extended family. Our duty as hosts-in-chief was in full gear.
5 Days to Christmas: The Reality Check
The holiday groundwork began. Everyday, a new checklist emerged with things to buy and prepare for. Duties were distributed, house items aligned and new dishes dusted, washed and dried, all in preparations for the hosting. A silent rule in every African home, I came to learn as an adult, dictates that visitors meant the unveiling of a new dining set. For us, it was the white china with gold rims on the edges. It was made clear to us, through my parents’ subtle-not-so-subtle hints, that we would be moving our belongings and relocating into our new sleeping area – the living room. “It’s only for a few days,” we consoled ourselves as we packed our pyjamas in small bags in preparation for the longest Christmas of our lives.
As my sisters and I prepared mentally and emotionally for the work ahead, our brother’s only duty was being the designated driver; ferrying visitors from Akamba and Easy Coach bus stations to our house. Everything else was left to us. Being the youngest of five, I was left with a plethora of small but important duties that ranged from receiving the guests, helping them settle in to ensuring their plates were full and their cups filled. To put it simply, I was the person that would make or break my mother’s great efforts to become an exceptional host – the concierge.
2 days to Christmas: Rolling Out of The Carpet
The menu was carefully curated. Mother, being the head chef that she is, sat us down and outlined her strategy for attacking the ten course meal she intended to serve our guests. The kitchen and backyard were set for the day to ensure food flows freely and in plenty. The house went through a makeover – a new set of curtains, blinders and seat covers. We cleaned from dawn till dusk. No cranny was spared even the once-overs. It was evident to our neighbours that the grey and white house at the corner of the neighbourhood was preparing for a big feast.
Family started to trickle in and that was the beginning of my siblings and I’s hardest time that December. Our holiday cheer died out the closer we drew to the ‘holy days’.
Christmas Day: The D-Day
Christmas morning started early for us – for those who actually slept. There was no rest for the host and the host’s children that day. We were a small factory, producing and ensuring all meal preps were done; from dicing tomatoes and onions, frying potatoes to rolling the chapati dough – a functioning factory in the backyard of our home. Its main product: sustenance for the merrymakers at the front. We were the Christmas underdogs.
Before we knew it, the house was full, with music and loud banter filling every silent corner. My father and his friends were lodged at the front of the house, drinking and laughing as Rhumba Classics from Mbilia Bel, Samba Mapangala and Madilu filled the air. We enjoyed the music from a distance as we tried to ensure there was enough food for the family. My aunties were seated in the living room catching up on the latest gossip, throwing the occasional jibe at the older unmarried cousins. Their hearty laughter rumbled as an accompaniment to the rhumba music that carried into the backyard. Out of frustration we decided to find whatever little joy we could, in dancing as we boiled maize, made mandazis and evening tea for the guests. Our cousins were forbidden from sitting with us, out in the backyard, because they would stain their christmas clothes.
The Night After Christmas: The Clean up
Is there an African mother who goes to bed with a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes? If there is, I’d like to meet them. My mother would never let dirty dishes lie undone all over the kitchen. We had to finish what we started, and we fell into scrubbing, cleaning, drying and returning mum’s precious golden rimmed dishes back into the cabinet.
After taking a break to eat, shortly after sunset, we got back to the grind. The factory kicked back to life and we were back singing and making our own merry while laughing at our pain. The flasks had to be full with tea – the perfect fuel for conversations that stretched on into the night. We were tired, but the end of the night was far from nigh. Our sleeping schedule was heavily dependent on when everyone else would head to bed, to allow us to set up camp in the living room for the night. You can imagine the frustration, listening to the endless chatter as I battled sleep.
It’s safe to say that my mother put on a good show, even though we were lumbered with the chores. My personal exasperation with these end of year ‘holy days’ grew worse with each hosting holiday. Still haunted by the ghost of Christmas past, my siblings and I aren’t Christmas people to date. But in retrospect, the struggles made us better friends!