If I was to ask you to tell me what your best Christmas was, I can bet my beautiful black ass that you will not mention any Christmas that was posted on Facebook in real time. The best Christmases happened back in those days we remember in sepia-tinted flashbacks. Memories the colour of old newspaper pages. When the world was still in black and white and the only thing that mattered was just how many chapos your sister could roll from a 2kg packet of EXE. But then I would bet this ass of mine on such a thing because those are the only Christmases I have ever really celebrated. Christmas was more than just a holiday, it was an event that started the moment Jamhuri Day ended. It started when Father Christmas (we never called than man Santa) rode on a train in that CocaCola ad – remember it? I do not celebrate Christmas anymore. Not because ati I stopped believing in the fairytale of a white beared man with a stomach the size of Game of Throne’s viewership sliding down a chimney to give us gifts for being good kids. No. Nothing like that. The concept of Santa Claus has always been too irrational for me to believe because; one, we never had chimneys in our house, two, we were always naughty throughout the year so we did not expect him, and three, (courtesy of Born a Crime by Trevor Noah) there is no way my mother would ever allow another man to take credit for the gifts she bought.
At a time like this, about one week to Christmas, we’d start planning all matters decorations. Because of the kind of person my father was, our house was always full during this time with relatives we called Uncle and Aunty even though I did not know how exactly we were related. They were mostly from shagz – chaps who the old man was paying school fees for and had closed school for the holiday break. These guys did not take part in decorations. As far as I can remember, the guys who handled decor were my other siblings. They folded strips of coloured paper into each other and then stretched them to reveal a zigzag pattern that would be hung on the wall. For the life of me, I could never get this thing right. When I tried, my elder bro Nimrod would undo my patterns because I did not get the edges right. Either they were too sharp or too curly. To me, they all looked the same.
What I knew how to do well though, was to blow balloons. I’d fill those elastic pieces of rubber with all the oxygen in me. I would do it dutifully as if I was being paid. Then I’d tie a string around the neck and give them to Nim and the crew to hang. Sometimes a balloon would burst in my face and the rubber would slap my cheeks with the fury of a scorned woman’s vengeance. That shit hurt bana. But there was nothing more fun than filling a ballon with air and then letting the air out while stretching the neck, so that the air came out sounding like a fart.
These house decoration things were really just a competition, in hindsight. It was just about who decorated their house more. Or better. But then during those days, there was not much difference between more and better. More was better. You’d walk into your friends’ house days before Christmas and they had sparse decor and you’d ask, “Kwani you are not done or what? Us we finished kitaaaambo.” because back home, our walls were leaking with Christmas decorations. Then they would make excuses about their elder siblings refusing to do the work, when in actual sense, they did not have enough paper or balloons. It was one of those childlike ignorances that hid the fact that not everyone’s father was a honcho at KRA like yours. The complications of economic inequality were as lost to you as honesty is to a Kenyan government.
However, despite not having enough decorations, there was one thing that never lacked in any Migosi household during Christmas. A Christmas Tree. They were not the plastic ones that people buy from supermarkets. And actually, they were not even trees at all. They were branches of cedar trees. Getting the right Christmas tree was an adventure. 24th of December was the day boys from the hood would leave their houses with pangas, walking around like child militia, scouring people’s houses. If you did not know what was going on at the time and then you saw a bunch of kids with machetes outside your gate, I would forgive you for imagining that they had been sent for your head. But you would be wrong. Those kids were not interested in your house, or head(s) (hehehe), but rather, your fence.
The holidays were a hectic time for people with live fences, especially people with live fences made of cedar trees. It was hectic because we never really asked for permission to cut the trees. Nobody would ever give you a nod to cut down their fence – and then what? Wait for like 3 more months for a gaping hole in your fence to grow again? Never. So that created a conundrum. What do we care more about? Your fence or having a Christmas tree for Christmas all the way to New Year’s? The answer is everyone’s guess. We would just rob people of their fences.
Because we were good thieves, we did not steal a lot of fence from one person. I mean, it was Christmas time. During Christmas, even thieves develop a conscience. Including the government. Come to think of it, in the entire history of the world, which money-laundering scandal ever happened on Christmas? None. There may be a scandal that happened because of Christmas, but never on Christmas. So even us, we robbed people, but we robbed with a little shame. We steal from this one neighbour trees enough for two families and then go to the next house to steal from there. Like that like that. And we’d know which compound to relieve of its fences because we had been scouting them since June.
The other rule about robbing fences was that you do not rob from near your hood. You go to steal from other neighborhoods. So for Migosi Site people, we would go those sides for either Ezra Gumbe Primary School, Kapenesa, Car Wash or White Gate.
To hunt Christmas Trees you have to go in a pack. It is a herd activity for many reasons. Mostly security reasons. First one is that if kids from those areas came after you, you’d find security in numbers. We invented Tyranny of Numbers long before Mutahi Ngunyi made it cool. Then of course for look-out purposes. Two people would climb the trees to cut down Christmas trees and then other people would be on the look-out.
We’d take turns between who is cutting down the trees and who is standing guard. Trust me, you did not want to be the guy going up the tree to cut branches. If the owner of the house whose fence you were stealing from caught you, you were on your own. You had two options – stay up the tree and hide in the leaves as others run, hoping against all hope that he thinks you have run away with the rest…or take your chances with gravity; jump down and cut. If you got injured, you would be left behind. Our loyalties did not run that deep. Your fate then would belong to the Lord in whose name you were stealing Christmas trees. It was nothing personal by the way, it was a matter of life or death and there was really no point of all of us getting caught. Look at the bigger picture; someone had to survive to compose poetry and songs about your sacrifice and valor.
And quite frankly, it is selfish to ask other people to die for you. Kwani who are you? Nelson Mandela? Even Jesus – the Son of Man, begotten of a virgin, first born of the dead, sitting on the right hand side of the Father! – was denied by his best friend. Not even once, not even twice. But three times. You you are denied once and you want to cry here. Please, be humble, eh?
We got away with this thievery, more often than not. Thankfully. And after a long day hunting for the perfect Christmas Tree, we would drag them home the way a hunter drags home his kill – with joy and pride, with a sense of accomplishment of providing for the family. We would get home to the taste of fried meat soaking the air. The air always tasted delicious during Christmas time. Then we’d go to the kitchen to ask for the chapos that have already been cooked. My sister would give me some because I deserved it. I earned that shit. Later on that Christmas tree would be erected into a tiny bucket, supported with rocks and sand until it could stand upright on its own. We’d wrap those coloured paper decorations, balloons, pieces of cotton and Christmas lights all over it until it came alive like a little glistening city in the distance.
It is next to this Christmas tree that family photos would be taken. We never paid attention to the size’ in our eyes, it was twenty feet high. The area photographer would ride in with his bicycle and take photos of all of us standing next to this tree. You had just one chance to look good, because these were not days when the photographer would waste negatives taking snaps of the same person making different faces. He would call you for your turn, you stand there with big smiles, new clothes and uplifted spirits and you’d watch him kneel on one knee (photographers always kneel) like he is receiving a knighthood and then click – a Christmas memory was frozen. Many others would then pose next to this tree not knowing just how much we risked our lives for them to enjoy this privilege. But since we were big men, magnanimous men trapped in the body of 10 year olds, we never mentioned anything about the robberies. We just let everyone enjoy the Christmas we’d made happen. We did not take credit or brag. Man, we were superheroes! By the New Year, this tree would have withered, its green faded away with the old year into yellow, then into nothing. The leaves would fall off, and the Christmas tree would be undressed into nothing more than a skeleton of dry sticks. The balloons would have deflated by then, and some of the decorations would have started to fall. A metaphor to remind you of the many things that never make it into the new year.
Yet on Christmas Eve, somewhere close to midnight, we’d congregate at our normal rendezvous point and look up into the sky and wait for Father Christmas. Normally he would not come. But then once, in 2002 I think, long before we knew much about the galaxy a shooting star shot across the sky. And we spent the rest of the following year swearing that we had seen Father Christmas fly on his way to Amerka.
I do not celebrate Christmas anymore. My robbing days are now behind me. Thank sweet Jesus we got away with that murder. These days all I need to complete my Christmas are the new pairs of shoes my sister brings me from Amerka every year. I wonder how kids celebrate Christmas today. I wonder whether it is the same for them like it was for me. I wonder how long Christmas lasts, because for me it never ended until after January 2nd when those annoying Back 2 Skul offers came on TV to replace the jingles and fan fare of the holidays – kwanza Bata Shoes were the worst culprits.
For me, there is no such thing as a favourite Christmas ever. However, I have favourite recollections from many Christmases. But that is just me. What about you? What is your favourite Christmas story? Were you in a band of Christmas Eve delinquents as well? Comment below on the Facebook section and tell Safaricom all about it. Use the hashtags #SafaricomXmas and #HomeIsWhereTheHeartIs. You might win yourself a beautiful Christmas memory. Could be a brand new phone or bucketloads of airtime. So that someday when your kids ask you to tell them about Christmas, you will ask them to gather around your feet, and you will begin your story the way all good stories begin;
“A long long time ago…”