Christmas is in the wind
POTTSTOWN -- For most of us, it's the smell of evergreen, gingerbread or snow in the air that means Christmas is around the corner.
For Bright Bobobee, a native of the western African nation of Ghana, Christmas means the smell of homemade glue, cut paper and a wind so dry it chaps your lips on contact.
"We know it's Christmas time when we smell that wind," said Bobobee, who visited Tuesday with Pottstown Middle School seventh-graders in Alicia Wickham's class, who are studying Ghana.
Bobobee was there to provide the students with a window into another culture and how it celebrates Christmas.
"Christmas is a foreign, borrowed culture to us," said Bobobee, who explained that it was brought to Africa by European colonials. In fact the history of the holiday can be found from the Ghanaian name for it. The phrase for Christmas in Ghana is "bron ya." The first word is an abbreviation for "obroni," the word for corn, which in Ghana is white, not yellow. "Ya," means "to get or to find," Bobobee said. So "bron ya" means roughly "to get from the white man," he said.
"When they came to Ghana, they were the slave masters," Bobobee said. "And all year long, you had to earn everything you got, and then all of the sudden, in December, the white men were very nice and started giving things away. So that's what we've always called it."
Of course those colonial days are long gone, despite the fact that some of the fortresses built by the slave traders and their requisite "door of no return" still stand on the Ghana coast.
Bobobee noted that in 1957, when Ghana became the first sub-Saharan African country to shake-off colonial rule, the new nation's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was indebted to Pennsylvania for his ability to take on that burden.
"He was educated at Lincoln University (in Chester County), so he has a connection to this place," said Bobobee, who repeatedly stressed that education was the single most important element of success.
"So who knows, maybe I'll be president some day," joked Bobobee, who was educated in the state at Bryn Athyn College.
But there are still remnants of the colonial period in Ghana -- like the fact that, despite seven tribal languages being taught in Ghanaian schools, the official language is English -- and they include the tradition of Christmas, he said.
Ghanaians "don't do Christmas trees so much as we do Christmas cards," Bobobee said. "We put up strings all through the house and we hang the cards from them, and we don't throw them away either. We don't throw anything away. We keep them because who knows, next year you might not have any money and you can use them again."
And children decorate by making paper chains, complete with a starchy homemade glue boiled and pressed from a common root vegetable in Ghana.
"I love the smell of glue and cut paper at Christmas," said Bobobee, adding with a smile that with all his reminiscing for the benefit of the class, "you guys are taking me home."
That his home land (he currently lives in Philadelphia) is a very different place from Pottstown quickly became evident to the class as he answered their questions.
"No, it does not snow in Ghana," Bobobee said. "In fact, we don't have the change of the seasons. There is only the rainy season and the dry season, and Christmas happens in the dry season.
"Sometimes we would go into the freezer and use a spoon to scrape off the ice and then we'd throw it in the air and call it snow," Bobobee said with a laugh.
"We call that a snow cone here," quipped one student.
"And we, too, would want to eat it," Bobobee replied. "The first time I saw snow was when I went to Sweden, and you can bet I ate a lot of it. It was like the dream of a lifetime."
In answer to one student's persistent questions, Bobobee explained that in Ghana there is no Halloween, no Thanksgiving and no Fourth of July.
"We have the Sixth of March," he said of the nation's independence day. "And we have no Thanksgiving.
"But the Muslims have a big feast at about the same time, so around then, you want to make sure you have some Muslim friends so you can get a good meal," said Bobobee with a smile.
Another difference between the country is how gifts are treated. Gift etiquette in Ghana requires that you do not open a gift from someone while they are around.
"If you don't like what I've given you, I will see it in your eyes," said Bobobee. "In Ghana, there is a difference between presents and gifts. A present is something you want, like money. Everyone wants money. A gift is something I want you to have, and everyone is happy to get a gift just because it means you are thinking of them."
Bobobee explained that "Christmas in Ghana is a time of expectation and a time when we focus on the end of the year. We're thankful that we're alive and we want to be alive next Christmas."
Ghanaians "thank God or Allah, or whoever they believe in, that they have survived for another year," Bobobee said.
"Christmas is the best time to visit Ghana," he said. "Everyone cooks (the most popular dishes are chicken, rice and goat) and everyone gets dressed in their best clothes they save for special occasions."
Of course, some holiday themes are universal.
Christmas Eve "was always my favorite time of year," said Bobobee, "because I could go out and stay out late with my friends and make a lot of noise. And when I came home, my mother would never be mad because the next day is Christmas, and everything is forgiven."