My earliest memories of Christmas – and ultimately of growing up – are inextricably connected to the sounds of roosting chickens, the anticipation of a hearty Christmas afternoon meal and the Chapel’s annual Christmas carol night. We were by no means very well off. Those were the dark days bookended by SAP and its attendant devaluation of the Naira and the Abacha dictatorship in which people in the Academia essentially lived hand to mouth. What was an already thinly stretched wage was steadily eroded until my proud, well read father resorted to farming yams and cassava in the space behind his house to augment his wage. The main garnishing to the routine fare we got served as soups and stews was beef bought in abundance from the local butchery, and fish.
Chicken was reserved for special occasions – the odd milestone birthday and Christmas. Over time, a family tradition would evolve around Christmas. Two to three weeks before Christmas, the University farm would hold a sell off of their old ‘layers’ – mother hens which had been pumped full of feed and chemicals would be auctioned off. Mother had excellent links with the farm management – the farm manager had been a classmate from her under grad days – and would give her a heads up which allowed her to scout out excellent bargains. Typically, she would buy two chickens – in one particularly good year, I reckon she bought three. The chickens would be kept alive till two days before Christmas; fed ground corn to keep them fattened and to induce them to lay whatever eggs they still had in them. Two crates of coke would be bought and kept under lock and key in the store, only to be served during the Christmas celebrations.
In tandem with her preparations, an assortment of students from the main church would get us prepared for our special guest appearance at the Chapel’s carol night. Us children from Sunday School would gather twice a week in one of the houses in the Quarters to memorise bible verses from the Nativity narrative, as well as learn our parts in its re-enactment. These usually started off in bedlam – children ages all the way from five to eleven are hardly poster children for law and order – but due to the persistence of the teachers a semblance of order would finally emerge. One year, in one of my less proud moments, I earned the dubious honour of memorising an eleven verse portion of scripture – a punishment for pushing my friend Ejemen so hard she fell and scrapped her knee. The year after though – older and wiser – I would redeem myself by giving a stirring performance as the King of Myrhh from ‘We Three Kings’. Interestingly that would be the only time of note that I would sing a solo.
Two days before Christmas Father would sharpen his knives, command that the chickens be brought before him, and then he would slit their throats – each with one smooth, fluid motion. We would gather around to watch their final gory, macabre dance of death as their surprised hearts pumped out their final life blood. The sisters and I would be tasked with de-feathering the chickens – copious amounts of boiling water would be poured over the now dead chicken to soften the quills and then we would proceed to remove them until the chicken was picked clean. Father would then proceed to quarter the chickens into reasonably sized portions for storing in the fridge for cooking on Christmas morning. Mother allowed us a sneak preview of the chicken meat – the feet, wings and head would be boiled by her in her biggest pot after stewing in all sorts of spices. We would have this as a communal meal – a preview of the Christmas feast.
Early on Christmas morning, Mother would wake up – I don’t remember waking up before her on any of those days – to commence her marathon of dicing, slicing, boiling and frying. All told by the time the rest of us woke up at seven there would be several pots going at the same time as she made up her special Christmas rice recipe, infused with the smell of wood smoke. Church would follow – there would be a short homily (perhaps the anticipation of chicken meat and rice made time seem to pass that bit quicker on Christmas day) and soon enough we would pile into Father’s old beat up Peugeout 505 to head back to the certainty of a hearty meal.
Mother had a thing for refusing to let us drink too many cokes, the thing we quickly learned was that on Christmas day she pretended to turn a blind eye.