As I unpack Christmas decorations accumulated during 45 years of marriage, it feels as if I am greeting old friends. People who gave us some of those items are now far away, but the memories of our times together remain fresh.
The first year we celebrated Christmas as a married couple, my Japanese friend, Akiko, stayed with us. She and I had met when her group of Japanese students came to my college as part of the Experiment in International Living. She and I corresponded when she returned home.
The next year, she decided to attend college in Boston. We asked her come to Buffalo for Christmas. She was not Christian and was intrigued to learn how we celebrated. We jokingly called it our “Shinto Christmas.” Akiko constantly stood in front of the Christmas tree softly singing carols she had heard earlier. Hosting her helped me rediscover the beauty and wonderment of Christmas.
After dinner, she sat by my mother, who gave her a can of baked beans as a joke. Akiko had complained that every Saturday she had to eat Boston baked beans, which she hated. She vowed to take the can home to her mother.
At a Catholic education conference, a Niagara University student and I talked. Through him we met a group of Ethiopian men studying for the priesthood. What fun Ulma, Abraha, Seyum and Adetto had decorating Christmas cookies – and my kitchen floor. Their shrieks of laughter as they tried to frost one another warmed my heart.
Usually our daughters liked having these older “brothers” visit, but they grew upset when the boys hung all the ornaments in the front of the Christmas tree as they helped us. “Mommy!” our older daughter whispered, “they are ruining our tree!” I assured her we could rearrange ornaments after they left. The best part of that day was when our guests sang Christmas carols. “This one is in Aramaic, the language of Jesus,” Adetto said. As soon as they began, I recognized the tune. “I have that song,” I told them. They refused to believe me until I played my recording of the Little Dublin Singers presenting that carol in Gaelic. The men were amazed that others in the world knew their song.
After we sponsored a Vietnamese family in 1979, we had them at our house for Christmas dinners. Our children were about the same age and enjoyed playing together. We adults liked talking about the progress the family was making. The gorgeous lantern they gave us is still a treasured possession. Unfortunately they had to move to a warmer climate because the mother became sick every winter and couldn’t adjust to our weather. We still exchange greeting cards and periodic phone calls.
The gap left by our Vietnamese friends was filled when we had guests from Thailand, Taiwan and Madagascar, all UB international students. They each brought a dish to share. We discovered similarities in the cultures as dishes contained familiar ingredients, like coconut milk. The other students moved on, but our “African daughter,” Mireille, spent many Christmases with us. One year she gave us a beautiful embroidered tablecloth with matching napkins. Madagascar is known for its embroidery.
Each Christmas my husband and I spent together and shared with others was special. But the ones we celebrated with those from another land illustrated to us how much alike we humans are and what joy we experience when we share love.