Christmas is a painful reminder of the family I left behind when I immigrated to Canada

December 15, 2021
Christmas is a painful reminder of the family I left behind when I immigrated to Canada

This First Person piece is by Iryn Tushabe, a Ugandan Canadian writer and journalist who lives in Regina. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

Like many other people who live far away from their childhood homes, the holidays multiply my feelings of homesickness. 

The night before Christmas was the most festive one in my hometown of Kamwenge in western Uganda. As kids, we got to stay up late, waiting for the carollers. We played in the moonlight while the adults sipped obushera, a malted sorghum beverage, or waragi, the local banana gin. 

Our house was far from the town centre. Though Kamwenge was small at the time, the choir would be exhausted by the time they got to us. We’d hear them from a distance, praising the newborn king of Israel in robust a cappella.

“What has he got to do with us?” Dad would say in his snide “Christianity is colonial hangover” voice, which we knew all too well. “This is Uganda.”

Mum would shoot him a look that immediately silenced him.

The choir’s lovely voices made Dad forget he didn’t believe. He applauded the loudest when they were finished. He stuffed every shilling from his pockets into their alms basket. 

Mum brought out obushera for the carollers to drink. The night stretched on, a jaundiced moon hanging in the sky like a big light bulb.

The medicine for fire is fire

I’ve lived in Saskatchewan for 13 years now and the Christmas season still hits me the hardest. In previous years I’ve indulged my fantasies, looking up ticket prices for a flight home and confirming that yes, it still costs a small fortune to fly across the globe. Throw the pandemic into the mix and the dream of Christmas in Kamwenge remains far out of reach.

I have struggled with some other holidays, too, but they have grown on me. I know, for instance, that I would have loved Halloween as a kid. Oh, to make myself look creepy and go from door to door having free candy dropped into my pillowcase! 

I do not feel the same way about Christmas. The idea of buying things, wrapping them with fancy lace and shiny paper, then giving them to family and friends to open on Christmas Day holds no allure to me. 

I’m glad to give presents on birthdays. Celebrating the existence of someone I’m close to — a spouse, a child, a friend — enriches my own. Christmas is someone else’s birthday, so why do we give each other gifts?

I went to an all-girls boarding school in western Uganda. The cool girls, influenced by western movies, exchanged gifts at the end of the year before breaking off for the holidays. It was mostly cheap stuff bought from the school canteen. Tea mugs. Sweets.

One Christmas I gifted my mum an enormous mug. I gave it to her after breakfast on Christmas morning. She tore through the newspaper wrapping. 

“A cup?” she asked, a crease forming between her eyebrows.

“I bought myself a new spiral-bound notebook. Would you like that instead?” I responded.

“I’ll keep the cup.”

She smiled, turning it in her hands. She was a big tea drinker, my mum. In the afternoon, when the sun was at its highest and hottest, she’d brew her second pot then sit under the umbrella tree in front of our house, blowing on her big mug. She taught me the Swahili proverb Dawa ya moto ni moto. The medicine for fire is fire.

Nothing ever stays the same 

Iryn Tushabe’s children play in the snow in Regina. (Submitted by Iryn Tushabe)

I do allow myself to get into the Christmas mood a bit. It doesn’t take much effort. 

Today I dragged our artificial tree up the stairs and into our living room. My two children, born here, were anxious to decorate it. The trees were already up in their friends’ houses, so what were we waiting for?

We’ve had this tree for at least a decade. It’s starting to fade. We fluffed out the plastic balsam fir branches to give them some volume. 

As we put up the ornaments, we were careful to hang more around the middle of the tree, where the lights have long stopped working.

Iryn Tushabe’s children put the finishing touches on this year’s Christmas tree. (Submitted by Iryn Tushabe)

One of our favourite Christmas songs came on and we sang along.

“Only a hippopotamus will do…” 

It occurred to me then that, just like wanting a hippo to play with and enjoy, the Christmas I want is really a fantasy. Even if I could fly home to Kamwenge this year, it wouldn’t be the same. 

My mum died when I was 18. After moving away from home, I finally understood Dad’s rants about “Christianity being a colonial hangover.” I gradually lost my faith in the king of Israel. Meanwhile, Dad has recently accepted Jesus Christ as his personal lord and saviour. We’ve switched places. Nothing ever stays the same.

I’ve promised myself that I will tackle that Christmas shopping list very soon. I’ll stay away from the giant mugs — I’ve been warned no one wants one this year. Maybe a notebook? One of those luxurious ones so smooth the pencil just glides across the page.

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