As we approach Christmas this year, I have been wondering what Christmas is like for the people living in the informal settlement of Bangla, where I work. Most of them are struggling from day to day, living in an endless cycle of poverty.
How do they celebrate Christmas while struggling to make ends meet and to have enough food to feed their children?
I talked with Joselyn, our receptionist at St. Patrick’s Dispensary, about her family’s Christmas celebrations. She, her husband and their two children, Caren and Patrick, live in a one-room house here in Bangla. She told me that they spend Christmas Eve at 10 p.m. Mass. The church is decorated with balloons for the birthday party of Jesus, and the Mass lasts two hours because of all the joyous singing and dancing.
Despite a late night, Joselyn wakes up early on Christmas morning to start preparing a special dinner on her one-burner jiko (outside stove). She takes a break mid-morning to go to Mass again, then returns home to finish cooking.
Christmas dinner always consists of pilau, which is a rice dish containing beef, chicken or mutton. Pilau has many spices and because it contains meat, it is expensive to make. For Joselyn’s family it is a special treat only at Christmas. Joselyn will sometimes invite one or two friends to join them, but living in a one-room house provides little comfort for guests!
Joselyn’s daughter, Caren, attends a Catholic grade school, where they are taught the true meaning of Christmas. But even in the government schools, they learn about the birth of Jesus in religious-education classes.
Joselyn said most people in Bangla cannot afford presents. If possible, parents will try to buy new clothes or shoes for their children from local street vendors. Since most clothes are second-hand, it is a real treat for a child to get something “new” to wear.
There is no Christmas tree in her one-room house. Joselyn laughed and said, “Kathy, where would we put a tree?” She made her point.
For 6-year old Caren and her friends, the highlight of Christmas Day is going to the beach! Joselyn said the children start talking about it days and weeks ahead of time. Taking a matatu (minibus) to and from the beach, which is several miles away, is not affordable for many families, so it is a once-a-year event, and they always look forward to it!
As I reflected on how Joselyn and her family spend Christmas—which is typical for many families in Bangla—I realized that these folks, who have so little, can teach us so much!
Their Christmas is not filled with commercialism and stress. Their poverty forces them to live simple lives, but that poverty also gives them an advantage: It keeps their Christmas simple. Their focus is church, family, a special meal and a special outing.
What a great way to celebrate! This Christmas, as I pray for my friends, relatives and donors, my prayers are also for a more spiritual Christmas, a simple Christmas filled with all the joy, happiness and love that accompanies the birth of our Savior.
Heri ya Krismasi!