King Henry VIII of England, after a visit to his subjects sometimes left a trail of poverty because of the expectations that the king’s visit demanded, expectations that had to be met by the nobility who were sometimes struggling themselves when the king visited.
Now, if you are wondering why your son-in-law or daughter does not pay you that visit with the grandkids as often you would like, don’t immediately conclude that one of them is a scheming, self-centered person. And don’t ask them either. You may be the problem. Okay, not you, but that large family that always conveniently shows up – lost cousins and all- when your poor child is in town.
Yes, our families deserve their rightful place and honour in the scheme of things. After all, what is a Ghanaian marriage without the involvement of the families of the man and wife? They give that stamp of credibility and validity that make our marriages last, for better or for worse. But what is that rightful place of the family? Or have we allowed families to have more than their fair share of the say and the cake?
It is that time of the year when families crisscross the country to spend time with loved ones and to fulfill obligations. And for some it’s fun, but not all fun. And the part that is not fun can be so overwhelmingly expensive that some young families have opted out of it all together, ditching the fun part for some peace and quiet. At least, I know a few friends who have. Ghana could hardly be considered a huge country in terms of land size but travel can still be stressful all the same. So at first, I thought that people just do not bother to go for family vacations because it was such a huge travelling inconvenience. And there is also the challenge of getting enough leave days that suits the entire family. Yes, there are little things that contribute to the challenge of moving the family for a holiday. But as I found out in many casual conversations, there is more to it than that. It’s wrapped up in two p words- PACKING PRESSURE. Packing pressure can easily outweigh the great points of a Christmas family visit even with the latter’s many excitements and advantages. This is why.
To begin with, there is the initial excitement of a family trip. The kids would get to see their grandparents again. Perhaps aunts, and uncles and cousins, you know, the whole package. There will be constant exclamations of how much the children have grown. Old jokes will be told, stories swapped and the latest troublemaker whispered about with great sighs in kitchens and TV rooms. The kids would also get to update and refine their vocabulary of the mother tongue and learn some Ananse folktales and good morals in the process.
Then, there is the logistical nightmare of travelling with pre-teenage kids, toddlers and babies. They can do nothing for themselves so a great part of the packing and organizing falls heavily on daddy and mummy. If daddy and mummy do not have impeccable planning and delegation skills, by the time that is done, daddy ad mummy look frazzled and just want to get to their destination and dump the kids on the their grandparents.
But you see, the packing is not all for themselves. As parents pack, they are thinking of uncle Kofi, aunty Akosua and the brood of cousins and other peripheral but equally expectant people. Cousin Ama will need a bale of GTP textile for the many funerals she attends. That special tea that uncle Kojo likes will have to be bought. Grandpa and grandma will need their monthly money plus the Christmas bonus to keep the house running. And the list goes on.
Christmas is coming and my friend has opted for the quiet option of spending the holiday in hectic, characterless Accra because as she says, “You can’t just go and visit your people. You have to pack yourself.” This is what we call pressure with a capital P. We place it on ourselves, friends and family by our expectations. Blame it on a series of events and things, but I cannot remember the last time I expected anything glitzy from anyone for Christmas or any holiday. And for some years now, I have learned the art of celebrating my birthday for myself. Now, it isn’t that there is no giving or receiving. However, what counts is not the size of the gift but the size of the heart that gives it. That is what makes us squeal with delight because it means that someone was truly listening when you talked about something. In a culture that is now driven by money (given out from surreptitious fists and white envelopes) and what it represents, it is becoming difficult to appreciate and experience the things that really count. Yes, culture runs deep and they say you cannot visit your elders with empty hands. I agree. But where do we draw the line? Or must hard working children shirk back from visiting their families because they just cannot meet up to the endless burden of expectations? Money now speaks. Can it be good enough that I visit my in-laws without breaking the bank or will that always be a part of that strange in-law dynamic that we can’t run away from?
Christmas is coming and this year I am looking forward to making it count. More so than previous years. To making something out of it. I am beginning now. It’s not in the ways you expect. It’s more of gearing my activities and tuning my heart towards the things that matter. And I am expecting family. Yes, I can’t wait for them! They’ll be coming from six hours away and the best thing about their coming will be the hugs, smiles and hilarious moments we are going to share. And of course if they bring some plantains along for kelewele, well, that will be all right, too.
What are you expecting this Christmas? Perhaps you need to cut it down to size and make someone important know that their friendship and fellowship is precious enough. So that when it is over, you won’t be the cause of bitter hearts and quarrels because you couldn’t trim down your expectations. It is always exciting to be on the receiving end of something good, but don’t be like King Henry VIII. After all, the best gift of all, Jesus Christ, came with very little fuss. Very little.