Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy (Holi)Days

I have never been much of a holiday person. Even when I was a little kid, I think a slightly arrogant precocious skepticism in me ruined Christmas for my mom. Not that I was one of those people who sensed the beginning of the holiday season with gloom, either. I just never got that attached to the various mythologies of the holidays.

In any case, I usually enjoy occasions. People bustling around being friendly, good food, etc. What’s not to love? There’s one type of holiday person who does manage to get very much on my nerves, however. She’s the one who organizes the parties and finds the decorations and bakes the 16 types of reindeer cookies. Generally people follow along and get excited with her, so she is rarely disappointed with the reception of her Christmas eve cocktail party, which is inevitably followed by her Christmas morning breakfast buffet, which finally culminates in her Christmas day feast.

On the other hand, if you’re someone like me, who doesn’t dislike Christmas so much as feels rather apathetic to the whole holiday thing in general, beware. This is the time of year to keep your mouth shut. Anyone who has the nerve to be less exuberant about the holiday season than this person, no matter the reason, is not simply allowed to do her own thing, go her own way, attend only the cocktail party and skip out on the buffet and feast the next morning. No, no. People like me are generally labeled the scrooge or grinch of the season.

In spite of my seasonal wariness of good cheer, I had three very nice holidays recently. Thanksgiving was spent with the other volunteers of the Kaolack region in our regional house. The kitchen is tiny and not particularly well founded in pots and pans and spices. Somehow, though, the volunteers doing the cooking put three turkeys on the table, a bunch of pies, and a forest of side dishes. In a country where real milk (not powdered) and butter (instead of margarine) are luxuries, and where you have to go all the way to the capital to find things like plums, celery, mushrooms, basil, and quality cheese, these guys put nothing short of a feast out there for us all. (And, I’ll say, they did it without being the type of people I described above.) Anyway, it was delicious.

Some friends and I were treated to another fine meal on Christmas eve. The parents of a good friend came out to visit, and they treated us all to dinner at one of the classiest places in Dakar. The meal was, of course, incredible. So was the people-watching. There aren’t that many Christians in Senegal, so I expected the restaurant to be mostly packed with the Lebanese and ex-pat population of Dakar. Not so. For every table of awkward Americans, there were two of three of Senegalese, plus the occasional Lebanese family, among others. When every table was seated and the place really got bustling, we began to hear the familiar beats of Senegalese music floating over from a big concert next door. More than just the beats, actually: we probably couldn’t have heard it any better had we paid for tickets instead of dinner. As the Christmas eve wine began to take hold, whole tables of young men and women leapt to the small center area of the restaurant, right in front of our table, and started dancing wildly. Beautiful flowing Senegalese fabrics, sharp leather dresses, brightly colored veils and scarves everywhere. They danced together, falling into something between what you would see in an American club and what I see in the village at baptisms and weddings. It was exuberant, unscheduled, unimposed merriment, and everyone in the restaurant shared it, no matter who they were, what they were, or what they thought they were celebrating. Merry Christmas, indeed. Or merry something, anyway. The merry part is enough for me, when it’s real. And it was, that night.

I had been in Dakar for a few days at this point, and since I’m at that point in my service where the end of my time in village is in sight, I hurried home to Ndiago for New Year’s. We had a beautiful, simple, delicious night at home on New Year’s Eve. I was actually surprised that anyone took much notice of the new year anyway, since Senegalese villagers have little need of the calendar we use in the States. Time is held together by Islamic holidays, planting and harvesting times, and the weekly communal prayer and market days. Days aren’t numbered or assigned to months unless you’re waiting for a remittance from your husband who’s working in Dakar. Nevertheless, the women cooked delicious holiday dinner dishes and made an incredibly sugary beverage with milk and tea and mint candies, and everyone stayed up talking and drinking until they were tired enough, even with all the excitement, to go to bed. That was when the old year passed, for them: when they were ready to sleep.

Holidays are a reminder of what we already know: that food is delicious, that we love our family and friends, that we can never get enough of counting our blessings. It’s not about something that happens once a year, but about what happens every day. What I love in this time of year is that we are given more opportunity to be thoughtful about all that. Christmas isn’t a single day, a blowout event, a thing that’s contained, and neither is Thanksgiving or New Year’s. The single big feast, the ceremonial lighting of the tree, the conviction that this day is special in any way all seems short-sighted to me, and perhaps that’s why the grinch label sticks. But to me, anyway, a holiday is whenever you’re merry, whenever you’re full of delicious food and surrounded by friends and the people you love.

Every Senegalese holiday has this feeling to it, and so does every baptism and wedding in the village. Every new life, every holy moment, every feast day is an opportunity to get together, eat until you can barely think, and then dance your brains out with your family and friends (which, in the Senegalese sense, are one and the same). No grinch am I, then. At least not in Senegal. It’s not that the holidays aren’t important to me; it’s just that every day has something holy to it. So happy Thanksgiving, merry Christmas, and happy new year to all of you. I hope you have a lovely January 4th as well.

Love and guts,


1 comment:

  1. Jessie, I am proud to know you. Thank you for sharing.