A Kenyan Christmas: Hot Weather, Elaborate Costumes and a Live Elephant

The family was on a mission trip in Africa for the holidays. Could they find joy and embrace new traditions so far from home?

Posted in , Nov 25, 2021

Edwina Perkins; photo by Grant Halverson

“That doesn’t look anything like our Christmas tree at home,” said Austin, one of our 10-year-old twins.“

I know,” I said, adjusting the green garland I’d taped to the wall in our small rented apartment in Nairobi, Kenya. Weeks earlier, we had traveled there from our home in Orlando, Florida, on a mission trip to work at a conference. I stood back and checked the garland. Did it look more like the outline of a Christmas tree now?

Anderson, the other twin, pointed to the yellow construction paper star on top. “The star’s crooked.”

“Why couldn’t we go home for Christmas, Mom?” 14-year-old Garrett asked. “I miss doing all the fun holiday stuff with my friends.”

“We couldn’t get a flight back for all six of us in time,” my husband, David, said. “It may be a little different, but we’re still having Christmas.”

It was different, all right. Back home, we’d be juggling a month-long calendar full of parties and outings for the kids. Each year, I wished we could slow down, yet things only seemed to get busier as our children grew older. Well, it was definitely slow this year. I was worried. Would our children be able to embrace the changes to their holiday season? Would I?

Our oldest, 16-year-old Danielle, tried to help me tape the carved elephant ornaments we’d bought at an open market to the tree on the wall, but when they fell off for the third time, we gave up.

Each child placed the brown-paper-wrapped presents they’d bought at the market beneath the little makeshift tree. With limited space in our suitcases, the many gifts they usually received were reduced to one, a small one. “This will have to do,” I said.

We ended up heading to a church in an open-air stadium that we had heard about from local missionaries. I longed for the candlelight service with familiar Christmas songs at our church in Orlando. I wanted to see my friends and the festive outfits they wore for the holidays. By the time we arrived at the stadium, it was uncomfortably hot. Sweat beaded along my hairline. Air-conditioning was not an option; that was something I missed too.

The church members greeted us with warm smiles and handshakes. Many Kenyan women wore dresses more brilliantly colored than any I’d ever seen. I saw rows and rows of beautiful brown faces, maybe 300 in all. At that moment, it struck me that our family was not in the minority for once. At home this was not the case. In our jobs, church, neighborhood and even the kids’ homeschool community, we were always part of the minority culture.

Here in Nairobi, we were surrounded by people who looked like us.

We made our way to open seats on a cement bench. People around us chatted in English. The official languages of Kenya are English and Swahili. The pastor, dressed in a suit of yellow, green and black, stepped to the microphone and began speaking. I studied the empty stable behind him. No Joseph, Mary or Baby Jesus. No elaborate reenactment of the birth of Christ. My heart sank a little. My home church celebrated with lights and production elements worthy of Broadway.

The pastor’s words drew me back. “Why am I telling you the story of Jesus? Let us show you.” He stepped away from the stage.

Trumpets blared, and we all jumped. Actors playing Mary and Joseph led a processional, with Mary holding a real baby in her arms. They were followed by a dozen musicians playing horns and different kinds of drums. After they rounded the far end of the stadium, a rider came into view seated on an elephant.

The kids leaped to their feet. My mouth dropped open. An elephant? Wise men entered in elaborate costumes and headpieces so large, I wondered how they stayed on. Each carried a gift box covered in jewels. Next came camels, sheep and several shepherds. Once Mary, Joseph and the baby were in place, a wise man stepped to the microphone. “Here is the story of our Savior.”

When a slight breeze wafted through the stadium, I could smell the animals. Was this what the first Christmas had been like, in that little stable in Bethlehem? As I listened to the voices of the people in the play and the cries of the baby, I was moved in a way I hadn’t expected to be. God had given me the opportunity to embrace the Christmas story in a country halfway around the world. My heart swelled with awe.

After the ceremony, we headed to the kids’ favorite outdoor restaurant. Danielle, Garrett, Austin and Anderson chatted excitedly in the back seat. They all agreed an elephant needed to be part of the Christmas story.

Our driver, Barnabas, glanced in the mirror and said, “Such small pleasures bring your children joy.”

But would the kids be okay without the Christmas dinner they were used to? No ham or turkey with all the fixings. No plates of Christmas cookies. Our meal consisted of burgers and fries—or chips, as the Kenyans called them—served in plastic baskets lined with red-and-white-checkered paper. We invited Barnabas to join us.

Boy, was I surprised when Austin said, “This is the best Christmas dinner ever!” Danielle, Garrett and Anderson nodded in agreement, their mouths too full to speak.

Barnabas chuckled. “Christmas is best celebrated with good food and time with family and friends. We focus on being in each other’s presence, not on the presents we can give. God is good to us.” That Christmas in Nairobi changed the way I celebrate the holidays with my family. The experience helped me slow down and really value people during a season that is often driven by activities.

Sometimes that means saying no to events. Each year, as we hang the carved elephant ornaments on our tree, I think about Barnabas’s words. Presents aren’t that important. What truly matters is being in each other’s presence, with God’s presence over us all.

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