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"Christmas In Lagos" - By Nkechi Nwabudike

It was the sounds of banger that did it. As continuous sound after sound rent the air, the more expensive ones leaving a trail of light in their wake, I knew it was December. The sound, somewhere between a gunshot and the sound a bad car makes, is one that has come to symbolize the coming of Christmas in contemporary Nigeria. For us though, the Christmas countdown hadn’t started. The end of year party organized by every school at the end of the first term of school was a few days away, and that day began the official Christmas countdown for children in Lagos. Official for us anyway.

Party day came and for once no-one, not even Chukwudi who hated school, complained about waking up early, or about facing down the bitter harmattan to have our bath with cold water (as usual NEPA had cut the power). In the shortest possible while all of us; my sisters Ada and Ngo and my cousin Chukwudi were turned out in our beautiful new clothes for the school end of year party. My littlest sister, Baby looked on from Mummy’s arm as she and Auntie shared a laugh at this one miraculous day of the year when getting the lot of us ready for school – a tedious task usually fraught with several real and imagined delays, quarrels and near fights- was as simple as ABC.

We had a lot of fun at the end of year party, not just because we got to show off the first of three brand new outfits or because of all the games, prizes and assorted gifts which we invariably ended up going home with, it was the hidden mystique of this party that caused all the children present to have as much fun as is humanly possible. After this final hurdle, the next step would be Christmas. Our countdown started in Lagos.

The bangers increased in frequency, my older sister Ngo actually managed to sneak a pack past my hawk eyed mother and equally watchful aunt. She, the 8 year old troublemaker, and her trusted 7 year old sidekick, Chukwudi egged me on till I set one banger off hurting my finger in the process. I didn’t dare show the injury to Mummy of course, the punishment attached would make the injury pale to my 5 year old mind but there was serious, studious responsible 10 year old Ada who promptly told me I deserved the injury but still treated my finger and then blackmailed Ngo and Chukwudi into doing both our chores for a week.

Christmas anticipation became Christmas expectation when Mummy came back three days to Christmas with a really large chicken just waiting to be killed. Nobody ever bought already cleaned chicken, if it didn’t crow in your backyard (or the communal yard in a shared compound like ours) how else would everyone know that you could afford to buy a chicken to celebrate Christmas? Also, Mummy has never liked frozen animals, not after it was rumored to have killed several people some years back. Ngo and Chukwudi argued over who got to help Daddy kill the chicken while Ada and I wisely got out of the way. When it was time to de-feather the bird and get rid of its innards, we were still nowhere to be found so Ngo and Chukwudi, much to their very vocal discontent, got to do that part as well.

Helping Mummy and Auntie boil and fry the chicken was something we all struggled for but, as usual, only Ada being the oldest was allowed to help Mummy and Auntie in that task. The rest of us got to camp outside the kitchen door and give our olfactory receptors a serious workout.

Ngo, Chukwudi and I dared each other to stay awake through the eve to Christmas itself. None of us made it (we ended up falling asleep in various corners of the living room) and Ada in superior tones that only an older sibling can command, told us we were all too young to stay up all night and that we were supposed to stay up for New Year, not Christmas. It wouldn’t be until I was almost done with secondary school and Ada the University before I would prove her wrong.

Christmas day was a very typical December day. Harmattan had its grip and blithely refused to let even an inch go. This did not stop us (as it usually would) from rushing to dress up in our finest newest outfit of the year. The hallowed Christmas cloth which parents (especially mothers) were hounded for as early as the second day of the year and the gods be with any parent who couldn’t afford to buy new clothes, they became the personification of all that is wrong with the world to their humiliated offspring who were guaranteed to hear all about it for the rest of the coming year. After a competition to see who’d get ready first, we were decked out and headed to church with Daddy and Baby, even Baby had a brand new Christmas dress. Christmas service is usually the shortest of the year and in less than an hour we were back home. Mummy, Auntie and Ada who hadn’t gone to church because they were cooking huge pot after pot of mouth watering delicacy, were also decked out, Ada in her shiny new Christmas dress, Mummy and Auntie in outfits I had seen before. Adults don’t wear Christmas clothes you see.

After church, Mummy had us take covered bowls of pepper-soup and rice to every neighbor in a 1 kilometer radius. Then we got to tuck into the first of three scheduled feasts. There was fruit salad with milk, fried rice and coleslaw, pepper soup, ose-oji and enough drinks (alcoholic for the adults and non alcoholic for the children) to make a drunkard sing halleluyah.

Every member of my family who did not travel to the village to observe Christmas celebrations made their way to our house and by the evening of Christmas day, the house is so crowded, there is no room for us to play. The crowd pleased my sisters, cousin and I very much because every Uncle, Aunty or grown cousin who came through our doors customarily had Christmas money to give us. This is what Christmas was for us, a day when we could eat and drink till we dropped, wear fancy new clothes, collect money from our relatives and do no wrong. Christmas is such a big deal that there is a say in Nigerian pidgin ‘Everyday no be Christmas’ because Christmas is a magical day when everything good happens and nothing bad is permitted to occur.

- - -

Banger - simple fireworks consisting of a rolled paper tube filled with gunpowder with a fuse at the top used a lot by teenagers in Nigeria in announcing and celebrating occasions, mostly Christmas and New Year. Although it has been outlawed in some states, including Lagos, it is still very much in use.
Lagos - Nigeria’s commercial hub, Lagos used to be the capital city of the nation till 1991. Lagos is home to most of the businesses in the country and is one of the most densely populated cities in Africa with a population of over 20 million people.
Chukwudi - A male name of Igbo origins. Literally means ‘there is a God’
NEPA - National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) used to be the national electricity carrier for Nigeria before the privatization of the sector. They were responsible for making sure that Nigerians view power cuts as an everyday affair.
Ada - A female name of Igbo origin, Ada is usually given to the first daughter in the family although every female is referred to as an Ada.
Ngo - A diminutive of Ngozi, Ngo (and Ngozi) is a female name of Igbo origin.
Harmattan -
Pepper soup - A local delicacy made with meat (most people prefer goat meat but chicken can also be used) or fish (cat fish pepper soup is considered a treat by most) lots of water, pepper and some other sauces. As the name implies, it is a hot soup and not just in temperature although it is best served hot.
Ose-oji - A delicacy unique to the Enuani people of Nigeria (or so my mother claims). It is made from groundnuts and pepper. Yes, we love hot and spicy food J
Nigerian Pidgin - A creole language spoken by most Nigerians, Pidgin is a blend of local languages and English language (the official language) and is widely understood by 170 million people of different ethnic and linguistic background.
Every day no be Christmas - a common saying in contemporary Nigeria used to imply that while you may enjoy certain things and avoid the consequences on Christmas day, there are at least 364 other days in the year

By Nkechi Nwabudike

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