Our rotating star
There’s been so much talk this year of a Christmas ‘not like any other.’ But for many of us, life has been out of sorts since March, when we first went into lockdown, and even as the new year starts and vaccines flicker on the horizon, we’re still hunkered down and living a rather strangely exceptional version of life. Which gave me a chance to think back on other years when Christmas was ‘not like any other.’
My first Christmas to have that distinction was my first year out of college, when instead of spending it with family, I spent Christmas with seven other Peace Corps volunteers on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. In a place and time with no phones, internet, or Zoom calls to connect us, we had to figure out how to make a Christmas celebration out of nothing.
I’d known my fellow volunteers for only four months at that point and we’d all just recently left our group training base for the permanent sites we’d be living in for the next two years, scattered around the country. Christmas was our first opportunity for a reunion and something to look forward to after those first strange days of settling in and starting our new lives at our sites, all on our own. My new home was a little village on the eastern side of Kenya, in the middle of a game park famous for its lions and elephants. Meeting up with the others, then, meant taking an overnight train from Mombasa, where I rocked away the night in the top bunk of a rickety old cabin that had once been part of the glamourous (and since, rightly-maligned) colonial legacy of the Brits. For breakfast, I drank my tea from a tarnished silver teapot still engraved with East African Railway in loopy script and watched ostrich, zebra and graceful giraffe racing alongside the tracks as we sped towards Nairobi, the nation’s capital. From there, I had to catch a ‘speed taxi’—a Peugeot 504 station wagon packed full of people and luggage and chickens—into the foothills of Mt. Kenya to meet the others. Reunited, we cooked a celebratory pineapple upside-down cake over a kerosene camp stove using two huge aluminum cooking pots and three rocks, a strategy devised by former volunteers and described in the legendary Peace Corps Kenya Cook Book gifted each new volunteer. In place of a Christmas tree, we crafted a wreath from foraged greens and listened to a cassette tape someone from home had sent, playing songs from Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer as we prepared our pasta dinner. Afterwards, we went to the local, one-room, candle-lit church for a midnight mass where we were welcomed broadly by the local congregation and invited to sing for them. Which is how a group of mixed-faith/no-faith Americans from California, North Dakota, Illinois, Washington D.C., Minnesota and Michigan ended up singing an off-key rendition of Silent Night in the darkened shadows of one of Africa’s tallest peaks.
It was a memorable Christmas, to say the least.
Several years later, still in Africa, I enjoyed my oddest Christmas ever. As a new hire and one of a small group of relief workers left behind as an Emergency Team at our location in South Sudan, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew nothing of Sudan or its civil war—only that I’d been told to stay ‘vigilant’ amidst the increased fighting and indeed, just days into the new year, we did actually get evacuated under heavy fire. But before that, Christmas happened, with several days of celebration that included traditional Nuer dancing—high jumps launching young men several feet into the air—combined with a strange, imported form of evangelism where dozens of people marched in bright white dresses (among an otherwise naked population) while parading crosses before them in military fashion. With a mix of horror and humor, I watched in my sun-battered, red sleeveless shirt, absorbing yet another version of what had been done in the name of ‘Civilization’ by decades of missionaries in Africa.
That evening, my Kenyan colleague and I hosted the other remaining relief workers for dinner: a goofy New Zealander working for the Adventists, a dour French female doctor, and a logistician from Paris named Pierre. Pierre was a retired chef, so for dessert he treated us to a banana flambe, carrying it, ablaze, through the door of our mud and thatched dining hut. Unfortunately, on the way in he tripped, shooting flames of rum across our floor, almost setting us and our tukal on fire. (Months later, after hearing about a fire at Pierre’s new location, I asked jokingly if banana flambe had been the culprit and was told in all seriousness, “Pineapple!”)
That year in South Sudan, post-dinner, as I stood outside peacefully brushing my teeth in the dark, open air, I searched the sky and located the constellation of Orion, a constant in my life. Watching its brightest star glow, I reflected on the story of the Christmas star and its supposed reach across the world. That night, I let it mark for me the long connection between home and where I found myself; thinking how my family at home might be seeing the same star; making me think even more about the connection between all people across time and space.
Two years (and a lot of war) later, I celebrated my first German Christmas—something that would become a tradition for many of my Christmases since, although maybe it’s good I didn’t know it at the time. It was not a roaring success. Maybe because I was surrounded by the trappings of family and Christmas—but none that were my own—I felt more homesick than ever. I listened to Christmas melodies I didn’t recognize, with words I didn’t understand. There was no Christmas tree until the 24th and Christmas Day was almost an afterthought. We ate tongue (?!) for Christmas dinner and cold salads for Christmas Eve. The crowning glory came on the 26th, when the extended family gathered for coffee, the great aunts and uncles of the ‘War Generation’ sharing their reminiscences, who stared my way every time they said, “Die Amerikaner.” I felt singled out and shamed by what I couldn’t understand. Only years later, once I spoke German myself, did I realize how often those stories they shared of ‘The Americans’ were mostly positive ones; a return to justice and sanity after years of war.
But it was nearly twenty years later that I celebrated my worst Christmas ever—and the one truly most unlike any other. It was exactly ten days after my mother-in-law’s passing. In a household steeped in grief, and lacking all her planning and organizational prowess, we felt obliged to pull ourselves together for the holiday, knowing that’s what she had wished for. But that year, it felt almost impossible to find moments of joy. In the wake of such raw loss, we wrapped ourselves in the motions of the holiday, hoping that might be enough. Unpacking the manger amidst the sobbing of my girls; sorting through Christmas ornaments while holding my husband tight; preparing dinner with my father-in-law as our eyes stung and leaked; all of us taking our first bold steps into that heavy new world of absence.
Yet even that year, one positive memory stands out. As part of the family tradition I married into, we hold the responsibility of keeping the family Christmas star. Handed down from the 1800’s, it’s a rather spikey thing that sits atop the tree and balances a twelve-armed star on its tip that rotates horizontally around. Each arm, shaped like a windmill blade, holds a small figure hanging down from its end, originally carved from wax. Over the star’s hundred-year-plus history, as the wax figures have melted away, they’ve been replaced with tiny wooden cut-outs each representing one of the twelve months. Every year, the star is unpacked from its special, hand-built box and everything is straightened and adjusted: the monthly figures ordered and hung, the blades fine-tuned, so everything can find its balance. Sometimes it takes an hour or more to fix the star atop the tree just so, so when we light the candles below (yes, real candles!) the heat from the beeswax rises up, pushing the blades around, creating in the dark of the Christmas Eve night a beautiful kaleidoscope of light and shadow on the ceiling. Family lore states that if the star rotates quickly, the year ahead will be a good one. And that year, more than any other, we needed that. I’m not sure how many times we adjusted the blades or the branches below, tweaking the exact the location of each candle, to make sure that when the relatives called to ask about the star, we could reassure them that it was racing.
My memory tells me now that the star that year spun faster than any we’ve seen.
Alas, for Christmas this year we didn’t have the star, or the reassurance that we’re used to it giving us. We weren’t in Munich celebrating with my father-in-law in person; he didn’t even get a tree. Like so many other families, we shared a Zoom holiday on lockdown, trouble-shooting tech problems and talking over each other, but at least sharing the same time zone so it was dark for all of us when we lit the candles on our tree and sang together some of those once-unrecognizable songs that have now become for me, too, the sound of Christmas.
Recently, another writer reflected on the ‘difficulties’ of Christmas this year compared to those of people living during World War II, when again, so many people were separated, often for many holidays in a row. I tried to imagine that level of loss and distance and restriction and lack of security; the rationing of food and movement and safety to that extent, not just in the short term but year after year after year.
My step-father used to tell stories of how he spent World War II as a child in Amsterdam and of that last horrific winter—the “Hunger Winter” as the Dutch call it—when his family had to burn their furniture and floorboards to keep from freezing, and dug up tulip bulbs for food. Or how my mother-in-law, also a child in the war—on the other side—told of being strafed on her way to school and forced to move every few months as women and children were evacuated from the bombing. I wondered if either of them mourned their Christmases the way we have mourned ours this year? Or if they were able, back then, to have anything that resembled the Christmas celebrations I later shared with them both?
It’s too late for those conversations now, but I wish I had thought to ask.
Yet that lack of knowledge made me think even more about what we’ll remember of this year. What we’ll talk about later—or share once this is all behind us. Because although we’ve lost out on some of our traditions this year—and the unluckiest of us have lost out on more, maybe even beloved people in our lives—there will still be memories that we’ll carry forward from this time.
It might be that, looking back, we’ll have a source of wonder that we managed to pull off something celebratory at all. Or pride at how we adapted and learned to take small joys as the important ones. It might be that we recognize all the things we took for granted before this, and how their lack this year will make them so much more meaningful in the future.
For me, I’m not yet sure what this year’s standout moments will be. Like much of life, I tend to realize what was most important only once I look back, after things have settled in my mind. But the past is always part of the present, too, the way the light from the star I saw in Sudan and shared with my family back home, was really a light blasted out long before, one we could only enjoy many, many years later.
What matters most, then, I hope, is remembering that important moments have already happened for us and will continue happening no matter what comes. Small moments of grace or meaning or gratefulness connecting us to the people around us—whoever they are and however it happens—or those unusual moments that we mark when something is vastly different; those realizations that force us to recognize what it is that matters most. And it’s the act of holding these moments with us, and drawing on them later that is the start of memory.
Maybe that’s what can reassure us, then, in this year of absence: that life will keep happening, that experiences—good and bad—will be shared, marked, and will be the kernel of memory down the road. Because like our rotating star overhead, it’s the mix of dark and light that creates the intricate pattern that so fascinates us. The movement and the momentum that guarantees we’ll keep racing ahead like our star, creating our own reassurance that next year will be a better one. And that from all those small moments we’re making right now, when gathered together, that will be a story worth sharing.