Christmas in Senegal: Paper Trees and Mandarin Oranges


As a young child celebrating Christmas, I associated the holidays with cold weather and the hope for snow. We would be among the first to buy our freshly cut Christmas tree and decorate it with lights and ornaments. My mom made fancy Christmas dresses for our special candlelight Christmas Eve service. Christmas Day, we would bundle up and trek over to my grandparents for food and presents. For years, these memories were as familiar and comfortable as my favorite winter coat.

When I turned 13, my holiday experience changed in a big way. My parents and I moved to West Africa to do mission work. Little was familiar and I would soon be learning to appreciate holiday memories in a new way.

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I remember our first holiday season in Africa, like it was yesterday. It was a balmy 104 degrees, and instead of a Christmas tree, we had a paper tree plastered on the wall. In place of a fancy dress, I wore shorts and a tank top.  It was Christmas-time, but everything in me resisted the change.

I cried a lot that first Christmas. Maybe it was the sad paper tree, or maybe it was because I wasn’t around my siblings, grandparents, and extended family. Maybe it was because I just wanted peanut M&Ms that didn’t arrive half-eaten by rats. I simply missed the comforts of home.

But even though it didn’t feel like what I thought the holidays should feel like, I came to embrace my new “holiday” normal. With my brother, sister, and our entire extended family on the other side of the world, my parents and I created new and different holiday traditions. Families that didn’t fly state-side for the holidays, came together and merged into one, big “family” unit comprised of friends and stragglers. We didn’t have snow, but we had the beach. And I was actually starting to enjoy this!

My favorite past-time during the holidays became sunbathing on our empty school campus in Dakar, Senegal, while reading through Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and eating mandarin oranges by the dozens. To this day, mandarin oranges are the #1 thing I think of during Christmas-time.

Military families often have to adjust their holiday traditions because of PCS moves or deployments, and I know it can be hard. Even though the latter part of my childhood was spent overseas away from family, I am so grateful for the experience and hope to give my own children the same opportunity. Who knew paper trees and mandarin oranges could create such a special holiday memory?

What’s your favorite holiday memory? Have you had to adjust any traditions because of a military move?

hannahPosted by Hannah Pike, Communications Deputy Director

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