It is that time of year when almost everything, including school plays, storefronts, post cards and wrapping paper takes you to the most well know scene of the First Christmas. The story of a baby, a new mum, in a foreign city is a scene that clearly needs miracles to get through.
My first Christmas in Zurich felt like it was straight out of Disney, with our own personal version of the Grinch, too. Traditions and routines form the framework of things that are known to you, things you have mastered. Christmas traditions in South Africa (my home), revolve around family, the sea, sun and reveling in the outdoors. Children are off school from the first weekend in December and the six-week summer holidays mean that festive celebrations are long, lively and loud. As kids we would put up a tree, make decorations, gorge ourselves on the glut of fresh fruit, homemade icy drinks needed to stay hydrated and then cool off in the sprinklers on the lawn when the days got too heated. Evenings we dine al fresco enjoying a braai(barbeque), or curry waiting for the customary evening storms to soak the gardens and wake up the mosquitoes, and crickets’ other creatures that fill the evening air with a beautiful buzz. This frenzied hum and Christmas carols being belted out everywhere were the familiar sounds of Christmas to me. So, imagine being yanked out of the balmy summer of Africa to do Christmas for the first time in snow!
With no tribe to invade the house and school friends flying off to distant shores to be with loved ones it promised to be bleak and lonely. Then much like the First Christmas Three Wise Men appeared, bearing gifts and each gift like their first counterparts changed our world for the better.
The first Wise Man, my neighbor, came bearing a gigantic freshly cut living Christmas tree, up three flights of stairs! I had never seen anything like it before, resplendent with millions of sparkling drops of melting snow and filling up the house with heady pong of pine. It was just ticket to get a sad teenager out from under the covers and busy. Figuring out how to keep it upright, quickly making new tree ornaments, when our sparse offerings ran out just at the lower branches, we were firmly on our way to conjuring up the Christmas spirit, discovering the magic of new ways and new friends.
Our second Wise Man is actually a girl so brave and beautiful, that whenever I think of her I can only feel joy. My daughter invited her friend over to make gingerbread to share with our friends and neighbors, as we do back home. As the two girls giggled and baked batch after batch of buttery, gingery little men we were intoxicated by the unmistakable effect of simple things. Friendship, food and gratitude. In February of the following year this joyful child would go into hospital for 8 months to undergo a life changing bone marrow transplant, but in that first Christmas she was in our kitchen giving us our much-needed miracle of love and acceptance.
Before I tell you about the last Wise Man I have to tell you about my Grinch. He was deep within me, filling up my lungs with fluid. A nasty cough sapping me of energy and truly like the Grinch stealing my sense of humor and joy. Throughout the festive period I battled to breathe, feeling like I was drowning. My Southern hemisphere body and soul were taking on the elements and over that Christmas it felt like the elements were winning. However in the tradition of Christmas stories, the Grinch was been beaten and now I have spent four winters in the North triumphing over the elements.
My last wise man is actually very wise and born on Christmas Day. He chose to share our first Christmas with us, arriving as the first wise men did with gifts we really did need – peanut butter, peppermint chocolate, rooibos tea and biltong! His arriving before dawn meant that we got to see the little Swiss kids out with pots and sticks chasing away the Grinch, we think (or just waking the neighborhood on Schulsilvester, the last school day of the year). We spent the week reveling in Swiss Christmas tradition: finding Samichlaus, gorging ourselves on Glühwein and Christmas market spoils, and then attending the Christmas morning church service in our village. On my first sub-zero Christmas, I received the gift of unexpected joy and our special, wise visitor from our South African home. Surrounded by the people I love dearly, I realized that joys are to be found everywhere; perhaps they are packaged differently than expected, or buried under the snow, but with the help of small miracles, we find them.
By Pam Mudray
Pam Mudhray is a South African who has been living in Zurich for four years. While she loves sunshine, the smells of African soils after the rain and salty zing of the Indian Ocean, she is having the time of her life relearning how to be a grown-up in this beautiful city. Pam is the mum of a gorgeous, wise 17-year-old. She had a 30-year career in counselling and sustainable development and was privileged to serve in the South African transition to democracy. Being a witness to human resilience has shaped her to be an activist for social justice and to live in gratitude.
Illustration by Aleksandra Koroleva
Aleksandra, originally from Moscow, Russia, now lives in Adliswil with her husband and 3.5-year-old son. She specializes in clinical psychology and started studying illustration after her son’s birth. In her free time Aleksandra likes sleeping, just as all mothers do. https://www.instagram.com/uber_evi