Christmas in Sudan was a strange affair. It was my first time in 25 years to spend this holiday away from my family, but I had made this sacrifice when choosing to come to Sudan to teach the winter semester at the university. I had never before considered the idea of having a “hot” Christmas, but am always game to try everything once.
I knew that I would at least escape the run up to Christmas, which is quaint and traditional in my home of Germany, and brash and in-your-face in my country of origin, England. It seems to get worse every year, with shops even beginning their Christmas advertising campaigns at the end of August! The only place that Christmas was present in Sudan was in ex-pat shops and restaurants, who had seen the chance to make an extra buck, as well as in international friends’ houses.
As the Sudanese generally assume anyone who is not Muslim to be Christian, especially those of white colouring, it seemed too complicated to explain the celebration of a Christian festival by a non-religious person. The fact remains that Christmas is both a European tradition and a religious celebration, and that people celebrate for different reasons. It is a time to spend with your family, eat and drink well and exchange gifts. These days, capitalism may have taken over the original meaning of Christmas as businesses put pressure on consumers to buy ever more expensive and impressive presents.
The day before Christmas Eve, my Swedish housemate Caroline’s parents flew in from Austria, bearing yuletide gifts. This was my first real taste of home, as they had brought spicy ginger biscuits or Lebkuchen with them, the smell of which stirred a well of memories within me. They had also brought with them luxuries such as cheese, smoked salmon and dark chocolate.
We had planned a small gathering for friends on Christmas Day, and set about turning our flat into a winter wonderland and creating a Christmas feast. We’d got our hands on candles and tinsel, and I fashioned some lanterns and an angel out of paper and plastic bottles. Caroline made red and white paper hearts; traditional Swedish Christmas decorations. One friend brought with him an artificial Christmas tree, which was the pièce de resistance. We made canapés of smoked salmon and goat’s cheese on crackers and cheddar cheese on digestive biscuits, arranged bowls of fruit nuts, and stuck cloves into the oranges to give off a spicy scent.
The one obstacle we faced was what to do with the Gloegg or mulled wine spices that we had acquired. We had not managed to locate any wine, and decided to experiment with an alcohol-free version using hibiscus tea or karkaday, whose taste, when brewed for a long time, is not dissimilar to blackcurrant juice. This was surprisingly successful.
Everyone brought something with them and we ended up with a spread of international dishes, from baklava to fried fish and pizza. The main meal, an Asian stew of chickpeas, tomatoes and mango, also went down well. I had baked the Scottish butter biscuit shortbread for the occasion, which was a hit with our Sudanese friends, who told me there was a very similar biscuit popular across the Middle East.
I thoroughly enjoyed this exchange of cultures as well as seeing so many different interpretations of Christmas in the same room. It was great to bring Christmas to Sudan and give our Sudanese friends a taste of the biggest European holiday.