Sunday 24/12/17: Christmas eve is mainly spent supergluing my fingers together while trying to make a secret Santa gift. I don’t think I’ll ever be grown up enough to successfully use superglue but at least it’s a pleasingly familiar feeling! My arms are a little burnt from walking in the sun today and I keep forgetting that tomorrow is Christmas day.
Nepal is 81% Hindu and less than 2% Christian so you have to look really hard to see evidence of Christmas anywhere; occasionally you’ll see a shop that sells a bit of stringy tinsel or a Santa hat but it’s rare. It’s been refreshing to avoid the pre-Christmas mania and excess that starts in the UK at the start of Autumn but today, on Christmas eve, I’m missing it.
Normally by this point, I’m already skint and my liver aches after too many drunken nights out. I finish up at work and head back to the east coast where my sister and I regress back to childhood as our mom insists on waiting on us hand and foot. Our Christmas eve tradition over the last few years usually sees my sister and I getting merry in our hometown’s pubs before meeting our, understandably mortified, mom at the local church for the 11pm Christmas service. We sing Silent Night by candlelight and it’s beautiful (when I don’t drunkenly singe my hair). As the clock strikes midnight, the church bells ring and the whole congregation wishes each other a merry Christmas. It’s pretty much the only time I ever go to church but it’s one of our only family traditions and I love that we’re there together.
I finish my Nepalese Christmas eve by listening to a festive playlist on my phone while making 3D Christmas trees and snowflakes out of paper to decorate tomorrow’s lunch table. My bed is full of paper offcuts and it’s a crunchy sleep when I finally doze off.25/12/17: Eeekk!! It’s Christmas morning!! I wake up in a buzz of excitement which deflates when I mistakenly spend an hour looking through other people’s Christmas eve photos on Facebook. Everyone looks so happy and festive! Whole families dressed in matching elf pyjamas seems to be a trend this year and it’s really cute. I feel homesick. I have to forcibly remind myself how lucky I am to have this amazing experience so I give myself a mental shake and get out of bed. This is going to be a great, if slightly unusual, Christmas!!
10.15 am: I finish my Christmas breakfast of dal baht just as some of the volunteers arrive. We’ve tracked down a church in Bhaktapur and we’re going by taxi, if it ever appears. Forty-five minutes later, it finally shows up and we all pile in. I’m on the floor and it’s a bit of a squeeze but we sing Christmas songs and it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas… tum te tum tum tum!
11.40 am: We arrive at the church and apprehensively climb the stairs; it sounds like there’s a party going on! Sneaking in, we’re directed to sit in a row of plastic chairs at the back. There’s about 80 people in colourful clothes sitting on the floor in front of a noisy guitarist, keyboard player and a couple of singers. There are lots of people singing, praying with their arms held high, clapping or talking and the microphones scratchily fade in and out amongst the rabble. People walk in and out throughout the “show” and kids run about just in front of us. In the corner, there’s a PowerPoint projection showing a cartoon dancing Santa. It’s all a bit chaotic! We sit and clap along with bits of the music, not understanding anything.
I had, rather arrogantly, assumed that Christmas and all its traditions would be fairly recognisable everywhere in the world (everyone watches Christmas movies, right?!). I only had an inkling that it might be different when the night before, I asked Rachana to proof read my “Christmas charades” suggestions that I was making for the guys; jingle bells, Santa’s elves, Christmas stockings, crackers, the nativity scene… everything got a blank look except for the basic jolly fat man himself!
I thought church might be familiar but this service feels completely alien. Our partner organisation project coordinator is with us and after a short while, writes down all of our names to give to the minister. Apparently we’re going to be introduced to the congregation. Despite our shy protests, we are marched up to the front of the stage while our PC gives a brief speech about why we’re here. It’s actually really sweet as they hang a scarf over each of our heads to welcome us. We shuffle back to our seats to a round of bemused applause and we leave half an hour later during a particularly excitable sermon in which the Nepalese minister preaches, shouts, and sings at the congregation. I don’t know what he’s going on about but it sounds thrilling! We put our shoes back on outside and return to normality. I’m not sure that it provided the spiritual soothing that we were looking for but I’m glad we went and I won’t forget it.
Our taxi takes us back along the bumpy road to a hotel to meet the others. Lunch is booked for 2pm. We chose this place for it’s Western/Nepalese mix but on arrival, we’re told that burgers and pizza are off. Restaurant service in Nepal is, almost without exception, awful but smiley so you just take what you can get. I settle for a plate of chilli chips and spaghetti bolognese (which translates as pasta with tomato ketchup) but as it’s almost 4pm by the time it eventually appears, I’m just grateful to eat anything. A lot of our table’s chat is about the Christmas food we’re missing at home but when you step aside and consider the gluttonous calorie intake for the average UK Christmas day, it’s actually quite insane! My belly feels full after my pasta and chips and a couple of biscuits so it’s definitely just the tradition that I’m missing rather than the actual food… though I wouldn’t say no to a turkey sandwich about now!
We play Christmas games and take advantage of the resort’s WiFi to call home – most of the volunteers haven’t had internet access for two weeks. For a lot of the UK volunteers, it’s their first Christmas away from their families so I know they must all be pretty homesick but they’re handling it really well. It’s great seeing everyone relaxing together and they all seem to be having fun. Team Changu with their secret Santa gifts.
I’m knackered; I have a new found respect for my mom’s ability to keep everyone entertained and happy (mom, you rock!) though a tv and some wine (mmm…wine!) must definitely help smooth out any tricky bits. This is a “dry” project, which means I have to wait two months until I can tackle the free miniatures on the plane and all sanctimonious thoughts around excess gluttony will be forgotten, for the flight at least!