This fleeting feeling.
I ran into the living room and, like an enraged lunatic, violently ripped the boxes apart. My siblings surrounded the tree at the same time while my parents sat back, drank tea and fielded greetings in Tangale. I do not understand the language so many of the elderly visitors made fun of me through their grimy teeth. But I did not care. I had variety packs of coco pops, rescue hero action figures, snapbacks and drawing pads. My range of acceptable gift selection was wide. Nothing disappointed me.
After Church I ran through the uncompleted foundations of the houses being constructed in the family compound. My cousins were my formidable foes in the games we played. I emerged with dirty shoes and scabbed knees. These were my battle wounds; they were my marks of triumph.
And in the evenings, I stuffed myself silly. My aunt fed me tuwo and miyan kuka but she fetched it in small pieces and cut the meat into tiny bits. I charged her to drastically increase the portions. My family laughed.
This was what I looked forward to all year. This was Billiri. This was Christmas.
My first Christmas in Michigan however, was different. They say the days get colder in the late ember months but I felt the chills from the moment I said goodbye to my family in the early days of august. That singular, emotional goodbye was the turning point in the story. It was an irreversible fulcrum, written in the sands of time. The culture shock of white picket fences and open driveways drove me into a state of confusion. Americans just let anyone walk up to their front porch and knock on the door. Preposterous people. They must be insane.
Uncle Stan, who is not a biological brother of either of my parents, lived about ninety minutes away from my school. I was one of the lucky ones. Many of my fellow international students went home with friends or stayed with host families. In the worst-case scenarios, they were alone on campus. Uncle Stan’s family surrounded me. Dozens of people, as a matter of fact. But I was alone as well. Conversations of hunting and camping in the woods seemed alien to me as I usually enjoy the comforts of peace and indoor plumbing facilities.
And then there was the weather. I believe the winters to be an interesting concept of growth and change. When you’re a child, the winters are a wonderland curated by Jack Frost himself. You make snow angels, construct forts and build snowmen with bowler hats and carrot noses. You go sledding and engage in snowball fights. School days are cancelled so you get to stay in for hot cocoa and cartoons. Joy. Joy, personified.
But when you’re older you have to shovel the snow, drive in it and risk life and limb walking knee deep within it. I once walked to class through the blistering winds, from the Fairbanks neighborhood and couldn’t feel my ears when I got into my department building on 8th street. Heating bills go up, there’s the change for snow tires, then there’s black ice well fixed to the paved sidewalks. One slip and, not to be dramatic, but you could shatter your skull.
When I returned to Nigeria, my first Christmas back was in Billiri again, and I was elated. I made a list of the people I was going to see. I, the city kid. The one who had returned to the hometown of my father, after my years abroad. On Christmas Eve, I looked at the now-erected structures, inhabited by people and missed the days of my youthful shenanigans when the houses were nothing but architectural plans. My cousins and others asked why I had come back from America, almost as if they did not want me. The miyan kuka soured in my mouth. I wanted to go back to Abuja. I would have even preferred the stormy tundra of Michigan.
My Christmas spirit—my happiness of the season, has been a fleeting feeling for a long time. Soon, I fear it will completely elude me. After my unwelcoming Christmas in Billiri, I wondered why this feeling is the case. Perhaps it is because I have grown older and I now see the world through different lenses that I believe were locked away from me as a child. In Michigan I saw the holidays as a black man living in America. Now, in Nigeria, I see them as a person who has grown up with a level of privilege. In two different worlds, I have felt the grass in between my toes on both sides of a chasm, with a deep, bottomless pit separating the inhabitants of both. Maybe the Christmas feeling is for children alone. They enjoy it until they grow up and realize what the world around them actually is.
But in the middle of the summer, my big sister flew in for a visit. My little sister was also around. So for the first time in almost eight years, my parents and all my siblings were in the same geographical location at the same time for about a week. And the joy I felt ripping through wrapping paper, fielding off passive slights from old people, running through construction sites, returned for a brief moment. I believe this is what was missing for me for all the years, through the multiple destinations, weathered storms and soured meals.I realized that for me, Christmas is not the place or the gifts or the surroundings or the food. Christmas is the joy you feel when you spend it with the ones you love the most.