The first song I ever heard was the carol Silent Night. My mother told me that. It was just after my birth and nurses had walked the wards, candles in hand, singing Christmas carols. So, maybe that’s why Silent Night is my favourite carol and Christmas has always been special to me?
As a child I would eagerly put my pillow case at the bottom of the bed and, despite all attempts to the contrary hoping for a glimpse of Santa, I would fall asleep - only to awaken to an icy dawn with the sack now bulging with gifts. Rationing was still in force in early fifties England and the presents were nowhere as sophisticated as today. And at the very bottom of the pillowcase would be a few treats such as an orange or two and a scattering of mixed nuts. The sheer joy was immeasurable.
It was many years later, in Central Africa and now married, that Christmas took on added profound dimensions. Sitting around a table outdoors, shaded by a huge Jacaranda tree, we rued the absence of family, but revelled in the friendship of colleagues, all far from home. Bitter fighting in neighbouring Mozambique surrounded us, effectively cutting us off by land, so there was little to purchase. We made do with home made presents and small token novelty gifts. The anticipation of opening a mysterious parcel still held its own unique magic.
Christmas dinner outside, on a warm early afternoon with wrapped gifts under a decorated tree, continued throughout our subsequent years in New Zealand. One by one, our small brood left the nest, and Christmas became a time of longed for reunion.
By the time we were in the distant Solomon Islands as VSAs we were well versed in southern hemisphere Christmas. On remote Santa Cruz Island we organised a Christmas party for the company staff and their children. There were gifts for all the thirty or so children - a small paper bag of goodies containing pencils, colourful hair slides, lollies and such. Modest, but opened with squeals of delight. Christmas music played and the guys drank Solbrew beer whilst allowing, unprecedented, the women and children to get first pick of the spread of food. It was a good Christmas.
Last year it all started… differently. Christmas day opened with a clear blue sky, thick frost, and a smoke haze hovering over the town of Thimphu, capital of the land of the thunder dragon – Bhutan. Being a Buddhist nation Christmas was not overtly evident, but that was not unusual to other places we’d enjoyed Christmas. Yet I felt an odd heaviness, a reluctance to embrace the day and by lunchtime found myself gazing across the forest draped verdant valley with an air of indifferent detachment. The total contingent of VSA volunteers in Bhutan had assembled for a Christmas meal. Home made crackers and party hats adorned a well laid out long table; at the head of which stood a fragrant pine tree proudly sporting twinkling lights. Paradoxically, the gaiety, the smell of roasting chicken carefully saved for the day, and good natured banter fed my despondency. I looked about me, questioningly, my heart aching.
Then, slowly, with mounting astonishment, I realised that spectres from previous Christmas’s were haunting me! A touch of capricious homesickness had interloped with the stealth of a shadow.
Suddenly someone cracked a joke and, despite myself, I chuckled. I sipped reverently from a succulent glass of Shiraz, a rare treat, normally unaffordable.
Then, I gave a gasp of delight. Silent Night rose above the background buzz of conversation. It gently drew me back to the present, coaxing away the residue of my reticence and gradually easing me happily into a warm satisfied contentment. It was a new Christmas - all over the world.
And the spectres nodded their farewells.
© Carole Harris Thimphu, Bhutan