A Holiday For Strangers

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Christmas is here again. You haven’t been in a single seating with your family all year but this month, on the twenty fifth of December you have too. You dread it. It plays in your head like a scratched tape, again and again till your thoughts turn to schmaltz. Mom called on the twenty second or was it the twenty third? You can’t remember. She told you where you will be having Christmas. Why is she always the one trying to hold this festivity together? It must feel like sand on her hands, slipping through her fingers. You wonder what you will wear because even though you have been estranged from your siblings you still want to impress. You go to your wardrobe and as you look for an outfit that says, ‘You’re doing great,’ you wonder why it feels like a competition? It used to be about sharing, kindness and laughter but now you feel like you will be walking in a courtroom ready to judge you on the size of your wallet and the clothes on your back, argh.

You remember how Christmas was like when you were a kid. The decorations, the Christmas carols, re-watching Home Alone and finding it new every time. Shopping at Eastleigh’s, Garissa-Lodge-mall. The jeans suit, the Somali perfume. The photos when the day came. The smiles. There was nothing staged about those smiles. They were genuine, you were really excited, happy to show off your new gear, gleeful anticipating the first chapati, euphoric about the trip to town. Specifically Sarit Centre: the games, the big sugar cone that resembled wool. Ah, good times.

The nostalgia buzzes then fades and brings you back to the reality of your wardrobe. You have nothing that says, ‘I’m doing great.’ The only statement your wardrobe makes is, ‘I’m getting along,’ ‘I’m trying,’ ‘This year has been hard.’ You breathe out a staccato of hot air and settle on faded jeans, a white t-shirt and a blazer. You hate blazers but they make you look older, you like the respect they command. Your brain whirrs back to your childhood. Sometimes you celebrated Christmas in the village. You cherished those road trips. You loved the snacks that came with the stops. You giggled with your siblings inside the car over the picturesque greenery. You made up stories about the pedestrians and made fun of your parents in coded language. You sigh. You lay out the clothes on your bed. Those were siblings you knew, those siblings you liked. These new ones you’re going to meet, who are they?

The excitement is gone now. Today you will be going to an expensive eatery. Some place where a single plate is upwards of two thousand bob. The entire cost for meals and refreshments will dangle somewhere around fifteen thousand Kenya shillings. Mom and Dad will huddle together and raise the sum and one or two siblings will chip in, because, why not, after all they are in their, ‘Doing great’ attire. You really don’t have to be here, you will think. Why do we have to do this once every year? Maybe you’re being selfish. We do it because it has become tradition and for some reason we let tradition define us instead of defining it. Your brain whirrs again.

While at the buffet you make eye contact with your sibling, not the one in a, ‘doing great’ attire, the one in a broken smile. You immediately break the eye contact by pretending to smooth imaginary wrinkles on your faded jeans. Phew! Your heart races at the conversation that could have been. You have dodged a bullet, real or imagined. You sit on the Victorian styled chair and take a spoonful of mushroom soup. Is this how opulence tastes like? You think that the watered down soup at your kibanda has better flavor but then, mayhap your palate is not used to the finer things under the sun. You mouth another spoonful searching for the magnificence its price tag should command but find none. Mayhap your taste buds have long gone on leave, what with the mutura and matumbo you punish them with. “Tripe.” The word floats in your head as you wipe your mouth with a white napkin.

You put the napkin down and steal a glance at your siblings. They have their faces glued to their phone screens. Probably scrolling twitter, desperately trying to find something that resonates with them in that hubris of oversharing—and sculpted personas that can only exist in the artificiality of social media. Mayhap they’re filtering a photo or responding to a text. Doing everything to avoid staring the family-get-together in the face. You wonder what is going on in their life. Are they happy? Are they where they want to be? Are they doing what they love? Are they putting up a face? You dare not ask because who wants to poke that hornet. You look at the sibling who chipped the most money for the extravagant dinner in front of you. You wonder if those were savings or cash that was just lying around waiting to buy mushroom soup. You breathe out then breathe in expecting air from the nostalgia of childhood to fill your lungs but all that does is discomfort.

You soak a croissant into the mushroom soup. You had vowed never to eat anything you can’t pronounce but here you are with fancy bread on one hand and words that mean nothing on the other. You soak it in the soup, it feels like putting a stone in water. Everyone around you is taking photos for their Instagram and Facebook. Photos that will have, ‘Family first’ and ‘Family is everything’ captions. You take a bite from the croissant, it’s hard, like bread that has been out in the sun for too long. After the bite you take another look at it just to be sure you didn’t leave your tooth there.

The two or three hours you’re together feel like months but even month’s come to an end. The dinner dissolves into dessert and mellow jazz music. After Mariah Carey’s, O Holy Night, you all call it a night and head for home. In the car everybody has their faces on their phone screens. Mom is the only one saying the food was great while thumbing her phone a mile away from her face. The car is quiet after her interlude except for the elephant in the room. Which is now trumpeting and misbehaving but its noises are strangled by the humdrum sounds of keyboard taps and the scrolling of mobile phones.

You heave a sigh after you are dropped off, a sigh of relief knowing that you have eleven months before you have to entertain those strangers again. A message bings. You check your phone. It’s your extended family Whatsapp group. You’re all related in that group yet you are all strangers. No one really knows the other beyond a name. Sometimes even names are a problem. One or two people is trying to schedule a meet-up but it’s being met by deaf ears. Everyone knows the meet-up won’t be about family, kindness nor laughter so everyone stays away. Another message pings. They have scheduled a date and picked a venue. You will miss this one, you think. If you want to stare at strangers you can go to the park and even then they will be more familiar than your own people.

Merry Christmas. Don’t be a stranger.

 

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