Christmas Memories

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Merry Christmas from the Charles L. Churchman Family.  Charles remembers Christmas in Ghana.


All Christmas memories seem precious upon reflection, but one stands out in my mind as particularly poignant, if for the most quixotic of reasons.

The year was 1975. I was at the time working for the Agency for International Development as a traveling auditor and had recently arrived in Accra, Ghana for our first tour in Africa. We had adjusted as best we could to the lack of amenities in the very economically depressed country, relying on the embassy commissary for the necessities of life and mail order catalogs for everything else. One of the amenities lacking was Christmas trees, but with admirable foresight, the embassy commissary had contracted for trees to be shipped in from Liberia. The shipment arrived around the first week of December and everyone rushed down to make their selection before the best ones were gone.

Unfortunately there were no best ones. This was the most scraggy, discrepit pile of barren limbs and twisted trunks I had ever viewed. Old-timers (anyone with over a year in Africa) were ecstatic. These, according to them, were far superior to the ones of previous years, though it was a stretch for us to imagine what the previous years trees must've looked like. Instead of trying to make a choice we simply accepted the first one offered and took our naked little orphan home, assuring ourselves that decorations would make all the differences. Alas, an ugly duckling no matter how glittering is still an ugly duckling. It was, however such a pathetic little thing it begged to be loved and we felt an instant affection for it, based primarily I believe on the Americans' predilection to shower compassion on the underdog.

We had at this time inherited a cat from one departing embassy family and a dog from another. This was the usual way to acquire a pet in Ghana, pets being almost impossible to import due to quarantine restrictions, and few were available on the local economy as they were quickly snapped up the inhabitants as fare for the table, cats being considered a special delicacy. The dog, a scruffy mix of border collie and various, was a nice friendly little fellow with good manners and Christian behavior. The cat, on the other hand, was the fiend from hell. He terrorized the dog, bullied our steward, browbeat the gardener and left a path of destruction wherever he went. One of his more endearing tricks was to wait until Dog was comfortably napping in the living room, then leap on his back with a demonic yowl and ride his terrified mount around the room like a baleful horseman of the apocalypse, destroying peace and tranquility as well as selected items of furniture. This was a cat without a single social redeeming grace.

It was therefore with some trepidation that Wife Carmen decorated the tree while Cat watched with a malicious gleam in his eye. Knowing what was in his mind, I instructed the cat on the protocols of holicay decorations and the proper respect with which to treat a revered object such as a Christmas tree. I also briefed him in graphic detail as to the consequences of touching even a twig of our precious little tree. He twitched a whisker and gazed back at me with a look of perfect understanding.

I came downstairs the next morning to a scene of utter destruction. There was not a decoration left on the tree, scarcely even a strand of tinsel. Even the Christmas lights had fallen victim to this master of mayhem. In the midst of this shambles sat Cat, looking proud as punch over the perfection of the awful desecration he had wrought. As promised, I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and smote him with the dreaded front page of the Miami Herald and repeated the threat to put him outside where he would almost certainly end up in a Ghanian cookpot. Our steward, Anaba, assured me this was not an idle threat. Despite dire warnings, however, the following morning was a repeat of the first. It became a ritual. Each night Carmen would restore the tree. Each night I would repeat the warnings. The next morning Cat would be sitting among the shambles of decorations and shredded needles, patiently awaiting his punishment. It seemed to be a masochistic ritual he reveled in.

Then came Christmas Eve. Carmen patiently restored the decorations once more and beneath our gnarled little Christmas tree we fearfully laid the presents, knowing full well we had placed a cornucopia of temptations before a creature reputed to be spawn of old Beezlebub himself. As we tripped off to bed, I voiced the uncharitable hope the tree would fall on Cat and he would be electrocuted by the whimsical and unstable 220 volt Ghanaian electric current as a reward for his imprecations.

Christmas morning. We tiptoed downstairs steeling ourselves for the worst--a Christmas tree in shambles, packages ripped and strewn about the room, presents shredded and destined for the trash bin. What greeted our eyes was a scene right off a Hallmark card. There lay Dog in the middle of the dining room, gazing worshipfully at the Chritsmas tree lights ablaze in all their glory, casting a twinkling glow over the whole room. Not a decoration, not so much as a strand of tinsel, not even an evergreen needle had been disturbed. And there sat Cat, smiling proudly as if he alone was responsible for the shining glory of our little Christmas transformed in all its pristine beauty. We stood there arm in arm, Carmen and I, lost in complete wonderment that the spirit of Christmas was brought so poignantly home to us by these two quixotic little creatures. I swear we could hear a chorus of angels in the background and the restless stir of animals in a manger.

Needless to say, within the hour Cat had reassumed his former role as Terror of the Household and Dog had regained the resigned look of a martyr, but Peace and Goodwill toward Men prevailed throught the day.

Merry Christmas to all from the Charles L. Churchman Family.

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