In Muslim Africa, a holy day arrives

The winter that Sam and I take the four children to Kenya, where we met long ago, our daughter Corrie, 11, announces, "No Christmas this year."

"What do you mean?" I almost snap, hearing my own doubts voiced.

Lamu, where we stay in December, is an Islamic island of carless alleys, imperial beaches, and a history older than the Christmas story. No countdown, no decorations, and no one who cares about Jesus or Saint Nick.

I like the fact that, among Muslims, we'll have to make Christmas ourselves. Except that I have children.

In Lamu, men in prayer gowns don't offer the traditional Kenyan handshake. They're going to pray in the mosques. I'm a woman, and I'll "dirty" them, they explain kindly, holding up their hands.

During the five calls to pray each day, veiled women hurry home. Cloaked in black, they move silently by me. Sweat seeps down my shift. Will Christmas appear at all in this heat?

"Christmas isn't here," observes Jake, 9, new freckles across his nose.

"Maybe it's here under a different name," I say. "Allah is an alias for God, Koran for Bible, mosque for church...."

"Hmmm. No Christmas."

"With its donkeys and palm trees and the buildings linked together with flat roofs, Lamu looks just like Bethlehem ..."

His eyes brighten.

"... and we're the nearest we'll ever be to where Jesus Christ lived," I say.

We're both quiet. For a moment, Christmas says it's coming.

I had no idea how frantic Christmas can become in the United States, like a huge fad in which everyone must participate. I prefer Christmas to be more private, more sacred. I like that no one here is telling me how to "do" Christmas.

The kids do not.

"I want snow and a Christmas tree," says Sara, 12, the oldest.

"We'll make one."

As they swim, I gather shells I'd never find amid blue mussels at home. I forget everything except which shell is right for a Christmas tree.

"The branches we need must be silvery," I say to the boys, who are dragging rotten mangrove logs. Arabic boats sail past as we gather pine branches. Our hands have pitch on them, and when we close our eyes, it smells like December at home.

Drums draw us out into the night. Crowds surge through the alleys. Ramadan is coming. Soon the new moon will mark its beginning. "Tonight we make merry!" a veiled woman says as we're crushed together.

Sara is painstakingly tying the last shells onto the tree. Children leap at our glassless window to peek.

"Isn't it beautiful!" Luke says. He's 6.

Before Sara rolls her eyes, I say, "Secret shopping tomorrow, Sara first!"

At home, we live too far away for individual shopping trips, but in Lamu, each child gets a turn. Poking into musty shops, we tell merchants what we'll pay for polished shells, a coconut purse, a shark-tooth necklace. "Just for you, a very good price," they say. I say, "Maybe I'll come back later." The price goes down. We do this for a long time.

Scampering up to our roof, we wrap gifts in newspaper. On the table goes a new red and green kanga cloth, and I know every year in December I'll do this.

Veiled women eat mangoes dipped in hot pepper sauce. In fancy dress, children wander. Men sail in the channel.

"What are you doing?" I ask a woman, her lips and nails fuchsia.

"Waiting for the moon, for Ramadan, our most important time!"

"We're waiting, too - for Christmas."

"Christmas?" she asks.

We're waiting for Christmas, but I don't know what shape it takes in Africa. I gather exotic flowers. We give away fat pineapples to acquaintances we like. When a card arrives of our dog at home, dusted with snow, my kids look so glum, I want to hand them Christmas cookies shaped like stars. The few gifts I have seem meager. What if it's not enough? What if Christmas doesn't come?

Men in kikoi skirts point, "Mwezi" (moon), and together we stand looking at the palest sliver of moon.

Ramadan begins. Restaurants close. For a month, Muslims won't touch food or drink from dawn to dusk. Under mango trees, men play board games. "Come, play," they say in Swahili.

In dingy shops, they murmur over the squiggles of the Koran, their holy book I cannot touch, as a woman.

"Follow me," I urge the children one night. Hurrying, we stop at the waterfront. Silent, I let them spot the tiny Christmas tree shining on the desk of a hotel veranda. The one little bit of Christmas, its silver garland winking at our white faces in the darkness.

We sing carols, loudly. Children outside listen. Donkeys slow their clopping. When all else seems to fail - sing, definitely sing.

Like holiday shoppers, people fill the narrow passages lined with vendors selling food at sunset: dates on scales, sugared green papaya, coconuts to drink. Children sit patiently with spicy potatoes and glazed honey balls their mothers have made to sell. Men with baskets of hammerhead shark sing out.

"It's Christmas Eve. Buy whatever you wish for our party," I tell the children, who buy food we've never had and sweets they've wanted to try.

On the roof, we spread out the feast and gifts. Beneath the thin moon, swallows wheel, and, for a moment, we hold hands and close our eyes. Eerie notes drift from an ancient mosque, and we hold on to this moment in Lamu. We open our eyes; no one says anything, no one lets go. Christmas - not in the form of snow or an evergreen tree, but in this holding on in silence - arrives like a shiver, like nothing I can pinpoint. But I know. So do my children.

They hang their stockings and settle beneath the mosquito netting. Candles flicker. In the stairwell, I play "Angels We Have Heard on High," on my harmonica, my tribute to Christmas.

I stop. "Who's crying?"

"It's Luke," Jake says.

"Luke," I say, "It's Christmas Eve! Why are you crying?"

"It's nice," he says quietly, "The music is so nice."

I play. He cries. Sam whistles.

It's OK to cry a little on Christmas, sing, or give away pineapples. Or just hold hands and close your eyes as if, the whole time, it has been there: that place in December we call Christmas, the place we all - African, Muslim, American - call home.

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