This Christmas my family and I will be going home for the first time since my father’s death. March 30th, 2019. Every time I think about it, I well up at the thought that he won’t be there to welcome me back home with his arms wide open. That he won’t be sitting in his Lamu chair with football or RAI blaring on the television. That I won’t hear him organizing the boxes of panettone to give as Christmas offerings to his friends.
In most Eritrean households’ panettone, a tall dome-top shaped Italian sweet bread freckled with raisins and candied fruits, is usually eaten over Christmas and New Year. One of the many imprinted cultural influences from the Italian colonization period.
I grew up in Nairobi, in an Eritrean Christian Orthodox family, and our Christmas is on January 7th, following the Julian calendar. So, we had two of everything. Two Christmases, New Years, and Easters. Every December 25th, for as long as I can remember, there was a standing open invitation to all our family, friends, and members of our Eritrean community for our Christmas Brunch. In the early morning hours, the kitchen would be bustling — a pot for every hob. The food is prepared buffet-style downstairs in the garden. The weather is the most beautiful at that time of the year. In the mornings you can just about feel the light warm air, the afternoon’s heat tempered with a slight breeze from Mum’s lofty trees, and the crisp cool evenings to finish off the day.
As the kitchen chorus continues, a beautiful white linen tablecloth is draped over the worn garden table that is adorned with teapots and seasonal tropical fruit bowls. The mangoes are usually the first to go; we devour the fruit with such gusto knowing we’ll have to wait for another year until we can get our next fill. In the middle, sits a big bowl of the holy grail: kitcha fit fit. An Eritrean traditional savoury breakfast dish made from broken up pieces of homemade flatbread, cooked in *tesmi and the coveted berbere spice, and served with a dollop of plain yoghurt to absorb the heat that dances around in your mouth. The traditional *boon is being prepared on a jiko — a small portable charcoal-burning stove. The freshly roasted coffee beans, in its container covered by a meshrefet — a small circular mat-like object handwoven from reeds — is taken around the guests so everyone can smell the fresh aroma. In turn, the roasted coffee beans are met with delicate hand movements from the wrist, wafting the air as if to generate more smoke and showering the one who roasted the beans with compliments. The smell of coffee lingers in the air faintly, and inside the house throughout the corridors, intertwined with the frankincense burning in the corner of the upstairs living room.
As I close my eyes, the smell takes me to a place of warmth and lightness, the house is filled with sounds of organized chaos: laughter erupting from the men, chatter from the women, and the younger ones waltzing past each other going up and down the outside stairs ensuring the food on the table is always replenished. Talk about celebrating in abundance and with a full heart.
The kitchen has quietened down for now. We, the younger ones, have stopped. It’s time to eat. We join the big circle made in the garden with everyone’s chairs facing inwards. The men on one side and the women on the other with Mum and Dad sitting across from each other. We can see each other’s faces, share the occasional smile, and steal a few glances. One of the perks of checking on our guests is catching fleeting moments of the interchangeable use of four languages, Tigrinya, Italian, English, and Amharic. These different languages together create these different conversations.
There are homegrown politics, the thorn in everyone’s side. Then Dad leads the raucous football discussion, you can feel the competitiveness between the Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal fans for the anticipated marathon of Boxing Day football matches. Laughter breaks through from reminiscing about their childhood in Asmara — this one tugs at my gut. Of course, there are the summer bunnies, that are home for the holidays, who are persuaded, albeit unsuccessfully, that life at home is better than “out there”. My favorites are the nuanced meanings behind the cryptic statements. An older lady was telling one of the newly married women that her body hadn’t changed and that she still looked the same. The statement was met with such delight, and the newlywed even started to press her clothes down as if to show off her figure some more. What she didn’t understand was that the elderly lady wanted to know why she wasn’t expecting yet!
The tug-of-war between the generational and cultural differences, the myriad of different occasions for which we have sat across each other for — they have watched me grow up as I have watched them grow older. I hold on to this feeling because I know I cannot find it elsewhere.
As the third and final round of coffee is being drunk, the prosecco and Panettone are brought out on a circular silver tray. The master of ceremony: my father. You could see how he took such pride in it. He opens the box carefully so it can be reused in case there is any left-over even though that almost never happens. In his larger-than-life personality, he would jovially sing a song as he cut the Panettone into equal-sized slices and open the bottles of prosecco. He’d hold his glass up and cheer to everyone “Merry Christmas! Buon Natale!” to which everyone toasted back to him. He wore a jungle-green collared polo top, a violet v-neck sweater, light khaki-colored trousers, and brown suede shoes. He stood tall and his full head of silver hair glistened in the sunlight.
That was the last time I was to spend Christmas with him.
The shops and bakeries in Brooklyn at the turn of the festive season have their shelves lined up with boxes of panettone. The first ones I saw were met with a brief emotion of excitement to be washed away with a wave of heavy sorrow. I choke back tears when I remember all the years I didn’t spend Christmas at home, at least I knew they would be eating panettone on the same day as I would be halfway across the world. We were still connected and had a shared ritual. The sight of these boxes is another reminder that everything has changed. Home won’t be the same.
The hardest part of this is that not only am I grieving that my father doesn’t walk on this earth anymore, but that he took life as I understood it with him. I often come back to the moment during his funeral at the church service, when the priest called our family to the altar. Our heads bowed down as we looked onto his casket, I couldn’t stop crying, as I realized that this is our family now. Just as I came to that realization, the priest continued to tell us to accept that this is our new family and to embrace our new journey. I had such a visceral reaction — I was gasping for air as I suppressed my wail through those last words. I wanted the grounds to open and swallow me whole — this feeling revisits me every so often.
I’d decided that we were all to spend this Christmas at the beach in Kenya, and not at home. I managed to convince my mother. Truthfully, it would be too much a greater pain to bear. I keep imagining the same circle in the garden, but Dad’s chair is empty and since his passing two more chairs would be empty. Grief is just staring back at you in the face. I cannot imagine our Christmas brunch continuing as it were. Part of me feels like I wouldn’t be able to stomach looking at that red Balocco panettone box sitting, waiting to be opened. And the other part of me is so scared to lose him some more because I simply stopped doing our family traditions.
For now, I like these Christmas brunches in my memory, for he is still alive in them. We’re smiling together and celebrating life as we knew it to be.
*Tesmi — clarified butter
*Boon — coffee