When Christmas Came to the Dogtrot
We first went to Africa a few weeks before my sixth birthday. We were assigned to be missionaries in the Belgian Congo and our first mission station was at the end of a dirt road not far north of the equator.
The year I was thirteen, while my brother, Jim, and I were away at boarding school, our parents relocated our mission station across the river to a more densely populated area and moved our family to a new, temporary “home.” It was a government rest house consisting of two dogtrot buildings and a separate cookhouse. In each dogtrot there were two rooms on either side of an open breezeway—the place where the dog could trot through—but all under one roof. The two dogtrots rested on either side of a deep ditch for rainwater run off. A low bridge spanned the ditch.
Our parents’ bedroom was in one room of the main house. We ate our meals at the table in the open breezeway in the middle. Our living room was on the other side. Jim’s and my bedrooms were in the other dogtrot.
In the tropics of Africa, December is one of the hottest months of the year. It’s also the season for Congo’s torrential rains, so it was not only hot, but also very humid. Sometimes at meals, we were driven inside because mist from heavy rains blew in the open ends of the breezeway, sifting over the food and dampening our shoulders.
That year, on Christmas Eve morning, my first thought was: Evergreens don’t grow in the tropics. Where will we get a Christmas tree? (This was long before fake trees were invented.)
At breakfast I asked my Dad, “What are we going to do for a Christmas tree?”
Dad’s hearty laugh rang out. “Don’t you worry,” he said. “We’ll find one.”
Would Dad be able to find a real Christmas tree to make it a real Christmas? I had my doubts.
Our parents’ work occupied them all Christmas Eve morning. Jim, and I moped around. We talked about the small gifts we had managed to buy for our parents out of our school snack money. Had Mom and Dad been able to find presents for us out of our storage barrels, or perhaps from the Congolese shops nearby? What would Christmas be like with few presents and no Christmas tree?
We searched the acacia tree grove surrounding our new home for chameleons and grasshoppers. I asked Jim where he thought Dad would find a Christmas tree, but his answer wasn’t very satisfactory.
After lunch I took my key and went to my room in search a book. Maybe I could catch a nap in the relative coolness under the grass-thatched roof. But I couldn’t forget my troubling question—What kind of a Christmas would it be in this heat with no tree, no snow and few presents?
By the time we sat down to supper under the hissing kerosene pressure lamp, no Christmas tree had materialized. The glass ornaments still lay forlornly in their sad, dusty little boxes.
“Daddy, what about a Christmas tree?” I asked.
“Will we even have presents?” I persisted.
“Don’t you worry,” Dad said, patting my shoulder. “We’ll have a tree and presents. Now you kids go to your rooms and go to sleep.”
Jim took our lantern and, walking side by side, with the red mud of Africa caking onto the soles of our shoes, I watched the lantern light make huge shadows jump and dance besides us as we crossed the yard and the bridge.
“Good night!” Our parents called, standing in silhouette because of the lantern light behind them.
“Don’t forget to lock your doors!” Mama reminded. She never forgot that, even though at thirteen and sixteen we were practically grown-ups.
“Merry Christmas!” we called back to them from our side of the ditch.
I lit the kerosene lamp in my bedroom and dropped the mosquito net, tucking the hem under my mattress. Jim checked under my bed and in the corners for spiders, geckoes or mice that might have wanted a dry place to sleep. Then he waited outside my door until he heard the bolt of my lock slide into place.
“Goodnight,” we called to each other through the rough panels. “Merry Christmas!”
At breakfast on Christmas morning, there was still no tree. But when Dad left the table, he wandered off into the acacia forest whistling “Jingle Bells.”
About 20 minutes later Dad reappeared with a dozen willowy wands of acacia tree limbs.
“It’s our Christmas tree!” Dad said with a big smile.
An acacia is not an evergreen. An acacia is a deciduous tree with rather broad leaves and I knew it would wilt pretty quickly. I was not impressed.
But Jim, making the best of things, helped Dad tie the stems together and bury the blunt ends in a bucket of damp sand.
“What a dumb Christmas this is!” I groused as Jim and I hung the glass ornaments on our “tree.” The bundle of limbs shifted in the sand as we carefully placed the ornaments where they wouldn’t fall off. I flung tinsel on the branches, but most of it just slid to the floor.
We each brought out our few meager presents from their hiding places and placed them close to the sand bucket. Even when Mama and Daddy brought gifts from their bedroom, it seemed like a pitiful show to me. It just didn’t feel like Christmas!
Before noon, the dog’s tail had knocked off an ornament. We’d brought these glass ones from the States, so losing even one felt like a calamity.
As the day heated up, the branches began to wilt and another Christmas ornament shattered to red and green shards on the cement floor. We usually opened our gifts on Christmas night, but Mama said, “Let’s open our gifts now before another ornament breaks.”
“No snow, no evergreens and few presents!” I sat back and crossed my arms over my chest. “This is not Christmas!” I huffed, but only loudly enough for my brother to hear.
Dad wiped perspiration from his forehead and opened his Bible to read the Christmas story. He read it all: about Gabriel appearing to Mary, about Mary’s visit to Elizabeth’s home, about the angels, the star and the shepherds. “And she brought forth her firstborn son,” he read, “and wrapped him in swaddling clothes—” Dad’s voice halted when another ornament crashed to the floor “—and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2, KJV).
Suddenly, my heart stirred and I took a deep breath. A Savior had been born! The truths of the miraculous arrival of God’s precious Son, Jesus, spun in my mind like fine strands of gold. There, in the scorching heat of a tropical Christmas day, without much of the holiday trappings I so craved, God’s love story and the meaning of Christmas became real to my heart.
I had yearned for a ‘real’ Christmas, and here it was. I finally realized that Christmas is more than snow, more than decorations and more than gifts. Christmas is God’s love shown to each of us and by each of us to one another. That’s when Christmas came to the dogtrot.