The Christmas Rite of Passage

There we sat a week ago in the rustic cabin holding cups of chai or coffee, munching on baby shower cake (that’s another story) in front of a blazing fire. Outside, were the noises of the furtive wild creatures that stalk the night in the Aberdare Mountains. The chill air kept us close to the fire and to each other, the lanterns feebly competing with the light of the fire.

The stories were flying fast and furious with each person seemingly trying to outdo the previous one with his or her own story of a memory. Some of them were bordering on skeletons from the closet, others were heart-warming memories, a few embarrassing, most were downright funny.

I smiled as I realized we were engaging in an ages-old sort of rite of passage…getting together as a family, sharing family stories and traditions, while initiating the newest member of the family into the ‘clan’ with its secrets. Memories and traditions…the glue that holds a family together and sustains them in tough times, especially times of great loss. I enjoyed watching the twinkle in Thuo’s eyes (Amanda’s husband of one year and the newest addition to the family) as he listened to each story, expressing appropriate amazement at some, scepticism at others, laughing at the outrageous, and asking his own questions, especially when perplexed by the traditions of this culture foreign to his own. I had to admit this fellow was very brave to agree to come to this family gathering, the only representative of his own family and culture to spend 3 days with us!

My father and sister had come only 2 days prior to this trip for one last visit to Kenya for Dad. He is in his mid-eighties now and found the international flight difficult. Even he admitted this was likely his last trip to Kenya. I had to give him kudos too for agreeing to come with us to rough it out in the mountains, hiking around the waterfalls and bouncing around on bad roads. He fared pretty well, in spite of his groaning at the abuse of the roads on his body and the complaints of his legs in the hiking. What a trooper. I just wish he was in the photo above, but he had already started up the trail back to the car, not trusting his legs to allow him to keep up with the rest of us.

My sister, true to form, took everything in stride, spreading cheer and laughter. She was here to have a good time and she was fulfilling her mission well. She ooohed and aaahed at the wonderful scenery, got all excited over the wildlife (especially the ones that regularly crept right up to the cabin), hiked gamely to all the falls, snapping photos right and left, and helped out wherever needed. I only wished I could have had more private time with this best friend of a lifetime. She probably shared the most outrageous memories.

Which brings me back to the night by the fire. In that small cabin we had Chip & I; our middle son, Sam & his wife Hanna; my dad and sister; and our daughter, Amanda, and her new husband, Thuo. I have to say I was proud of the grace with which Thuo handled this rowdy representation of our extended family. I wondered how much coaching he had received by our daughter. As I enjoyed the banter, true to form, I began musing, like I was seeing something else happening at another level than the obvious. I realized that this was a type of initiation, like a rite of passage for the newest member, made all the more fun because there was a new member for this rite. When there isn’t a new member, then it becomes a type of rehearsal, practicing for the time one does arrive on the scene. The next one in line will be Amanda’s & Thuo’s baby, due in early February. No one would have called the scene just described as a rite of passage because there were no written or even spoken rules, no form to follow…just a sharing of drink, food, and stories, everyone watching the newest family member for his reaction to each story, each revelation of family secrets. I think he passed.

An interesting thought occurred to me…Chip & I had had a similar experience in the series of family meetings that took place before Amanda’s & Thuo’s wedding. We were being exposed to his family’s culture, traditions, and stories, all the while being watched to see our reactions to these meetings and activities so important to the family’s culture. Will we accept them? Or would we reject that which is so much a part of their family traditions? I think we passed and were approved to join the family. All indications seem to point that way. The difference was that Thuo had his rite of passage after the wedding in his first major experience with our extended family…the night in the cabin in the Aberdare Mountains. I feel for his puzzlement at our Christmas traditions. Why decorate a tree and keep it in the house? Why give everyone presents? What is the purpose of the twinkle lights or certain foods prepared only at Christmas each year? Nevertheless, he has been a game pupil, by all appearances enjoying the journey, even as we have enjoyed sharing insights into our own peculiar family culture with him.

These gatherings of family, usually during holidays or major family events, are important to sustaining that family in times of crisis, in loss, and when threatened from outside. This is what helps a family form an identity as a unit, giving it strength…these memories, shared stories, family history. These are the tools that forge a new member right into the center of that family, shaping him or her into someone new or at least different from what he or she was before, helping him or her to be accepted, to belong, to be ‘one of us’. How this new member receives the family history largely determines how much a part of that unit he or she becomes.

This Christmas, as you gather with family and friends, I’d like to encourage you to share together your family story. Help the newest members feel a part of the larger family. Grant them grace if they find your ways peculiar. Get to know their ways too, and find that common ground you are bound to find if you share enough. And while you are initiating that new member into the family unit, enjoy that cup of chai or coffee and the gingerbread cookies, Christmas bread, or whatever traditional Christmas food you all enjoy so much. I pray you treasure time with loved ones this Christmas season. We certainly are!

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