My siblings and I, ten in all, lived at Onitsha, but as children we celebrated most of our Christmases in Akokwa, a village in the Imo state of Nigeria where our parents were born.
The anticipation of wearing new clothes to church services kept all the children in the neighborhood buzzing about each upcoming Christmas. For us, Christmas did not exist without the smell of new clothes.
We wore new shoes as well, but the new shoes were never as colorful as our new clothes. Toys were non-existent and never crossed our minds.
Visits to the tailor made upcoming Christmases more real and the trip from Onitsha to Akokwa more imminent. November would be the signal that prompted our mother to take us to be measured.
You might think only the rich have their clothes tailor-made. Not in the sixties and seventies! This period was an era of patriotism, when Nigerians were fed up with British rule and parents sneered on all things made abroad.
We had a tailor every child would envy. A broad smile always spread across his narrow face when he saw us. Our tailor was already an adult, but still in an age range when every smile does not etch a groove in the face.
A notebook with peeling back cover and rumpled inner pages, with its red mud stump of a pencil inside, always rested on the corner of a brown wooden desktop. Beside it on the desktop stood his hand-operated sewing machine.
Fondly known as ‘uzo na akpu akwa,’–the sculptor who sews clothes–he made sure our shirts and pants fitted us comfortably.
In his shop, my siblings and I would marvel at the different varieties of fabrics, stacked on wooden shelves along the wall, from which we could make our choice.
Fabrics decorated with petals of a rose, iris, tulip and hibiscus, or shapes of animals such as giraffes, lambs or zebra, dazzled our faces and our minds. Most times, after hours of dillydallying, we would end up wearing uniforms of elephant or zebra or rose flowers.
Everybody got a turn with the tailor. From the tip of the shoulder, the tailor would run a tape measure to the wrist. Then he would stretch the tape across the back to measure the distance between shoulder tips. Next, he measured chest girth, abdominal girth, and circumference around the wrists.
Sometimes, after each measurement, the tailor wrote the numbers down in the notebook. At other times he chose not to write down his numbers. Such a whim in a grown-up worried me then, but not anymore; I now realize how capricious we are as adults.
On Christmas Day, children hurried their baths in order to get dressed up in their new clothes. Adults began food preparation early so that the kids would have something to eat when they got back from the church service.
Those siblings old enough to dress up on their own would do so. Others, like me, still under five years of age and not yet capable of independent dressing, would line up and wait for help from Mother.
Mother would bring one shirt sleeve up, and I’d slide in my left hand and arm. Then she’d pull the shirt across my back, enabling me to insert my right hand and square up my shoulders. She would bring the front hem of the shirt together and began putting the flat white buttons through the holes.
Sometimes, if the holes were a bit small, she would have to tug and wiggle the material until the buttons slid through to the other side of the shirt.
Older sister Liveth could play the role of mother, helping to dress her younger siblings, but I wouldn’t let her. Unlike Mother, she wouldn’t have appreciated how much I had improved in learning to dress myself.
Only mothers could notice such nuances in the life of a child from year to year. Besides, had my elder sister seen my unfolding independent abilities and praised me for them, the quality of her praise wouldn’t be the same as my mother’s.
All dressed up in our new clothes, we would make our way in groups to Saint Barnabas’ Church, the village church in Akokwa, twenty minutes’ walk away. There we admired other kids with similar fancy fabrics and compared their clothes to ours.
Since the church services took too long and Mass was held in Latin, and since God wouldn’t hear our prayers for a quicker dismissal, we played in the adjacent church field while waiting for the authentic worshipers to come out.
When the service ended, parents would drive their Peugeot vehicles along a bumpy path out of the church premises while we children hurried home on foot.
At home, we would swap our shiny Christmas clothes with worn-out shirts and shorts and wait for the ‘food is ready,’ signal from the kitchen.
In the kitchen, several shallow metal plates heaped with jollof rice and embellished with one or two pieces of goat’s meat lay on the wobbly kitchen table in the corner. Planted in the side of the heap of rice would be a metal spoon with which to attack the food.
People visited a lot during Christmas Day, right up until it started getting dark. Neighbors would saunter in, and friends would come unannounced from far away. Mom would also serve them jollof rice spiked with a piece or two of cut dried goat’s meat.
Only night had the authority to send us to bed. We would wake up wishing Christmas hadn’t come and gone.
Before I finished this article, my fifteen year old son wanted to know about the most exciting times of my life. By far, it was those Christmases at Akokwa. Decades of life experiences since then cannot begin to match such sparkling nostalgia. Not even the terrible years when Nigerian soldiers invaded the Igbos of Biafra (1967 through 1969) could diminish such wonderful childhood memories.