The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2 (NIV)
“Christmas will be here soon,” my first-grade teacher said. “In a couple weeks you children will fly home to your parents on their mission stations for the holidays. Today we’ll make a Christmas craft for you to take home.”
Twenty faces beamed around the sunlit classroom at the boarding school for missionary children in Nigeria, and happy voices called out.
“Yay! It’s almost Christmas!”
“Crafts are my favorite subject.”
“I can’t wait ‘til we go home.”
I hunched over the project, tongue trapped between my teeth with determination, as my tiny fingers struggled with the scissors.
During the next half hour, I cut along the black outline of a tree on forest-green construction paper, glued red berries to the tip of each thick branch and pasted a yellow star on the pointed top. I hunched over the project, tongue trapped between my teeth with determination, as my tiny fingers struggled with the scissors.
While we worked, the teacher talked. “Every year, our cook creates a Candy House. She’s been hard at work in the kitchen this week, and I heard it’s going up today in the lobby of the dining hall.”
When the bell rang for lunch, one of the students said, “We’ve got to see if the Candy House is there!”
I scribbled my name on the back of my festooned Christmas tree, balanced it flat on my open palms all the way to the teacher’s desk, then crowded out the door with my classmates.
We crossed the playground and stepped into the large entry hall where long benches lined the walls on both sides. Three of us stood for a moment in the doorway, eyes scanning the waiting area. Sure enough, a large group of kids had already gathered, and the air buzzed with electricity.
A Magical Wonderland
On our right, a set of double doors opened into the dining room. Further along the lobby wall, just past those doors, stood a card table surrounded by a swarm of chattering children. They clustered three-deep, elbows and shoulders jostling for the best view, exclaiming over the amazing scene before them.
“Wow! I can’t believe it!” one kid said.
“The snow looks so real.”
“There’s even a sleigh!”
As soon as two kids moved aside and headed to a bench, I threaded my way to the table edge.
The magical world took my breath away.
“It’s not one building. It’s a whole village!” I whispered. “I’ve never seen anything this pretty before.” For a long minute I held my breath and stood without blinking, for fear the winter wonderland would vanish in the tropical heat.
Inside each structure a faint light glowed, filtering through “stained-glassed” windows of melted hard candies.
A semicircle of six gingerbread houses at the back flanked a street in the foreground outlined by a white picket fence and Victorian lamp posts. Inside each structure a faint light glowed, filtering through “stained-glassed” windows of melted hard candies. Scattered throughout the village were painted cardboard figures including two carolers, Santa Claus himself, and a red sleigh, making the scene come to life.
Across the top of the display lay a large sheet of clear plastic that draped over and protected all four sides of the project. From inside this cover of the cozy, make-shift world, hung short ribbons holding glimmering ornaments, with a star in the center against the backdrop of midnight blue sky. I took a deep breath. The smell of gingerbread and sugar filled my nose and made it tingle.
I didn’t even taste lunch. As soon as I’d scraped my plate clean, I hurried out to the enchanting fantasy land, but a flock of other students beat me to it. Waiting on the bench, I swung my legs back and forth, humming “Jingle Bells” to myself. When the crowd thinned out, I scooted off and scurried to the table.
Lost in Dreamland
With the tip of my nose pressed up to the plastic sheet, my eyes darted left and right, searching out every detail. Imagination took flight:
That little house in the center is mine. Our aunts and uncles from America live in the other houses. Mommy, Daddy, and my little brothers wait by the front window every afternoon for Larry and me to walk home from school.
My heart rate slowed, and I drifted into a dreamy state as I envisioned living with my family year-round. The story continued in my mind:
My brothers, cousins, and I make snowballs, toss them around, and then build a little snowman. We ride the sleigh through the woods, and finally end up in our kitchen, where Mom has large mugs of steaming hot chocolate sitting on the table. I place my cold hands around the mug, and contentment hugs my body like a soft, warm blanket.
All too soon I woke up from my trance and pulled my thoughts to the present. It was time for afternoon rest hour.
From my bed, I spied the auntie on duty walking past our doorway, and I called to her. “Who gets to eat the gingerbread house?”
“The last kids to fly home in our mission planes are the ones who get to,” she said. “That’s a special treat since they have to wait a few extra days.”
“In that case, I don’t want to taste it. I hope I’m on the first plane,” I said
The auntie stepped up to my bed, patted my hand, and said, “But before everyone goes to their mission station, there’s one more special event we’re preparing for you.”
“What could be more exciting than the Candy House?!” I asked.
The skin around her eyes crinkled, and her mouth turned up at the corners in a smile. “Next week you’ll see. Just wait!”
A shiver of excitement runs down my spine each time I think of that magnificent annual Candy House. I’d like to thank the KA alumni who shared their memories and photos in the KA (Kent Academy) Facebook Group. Their comments helped me to mentally reconstruct this vivid tradition, and I’m grateful to all who contributed.
Additionally, the staff organized one other big surprise during the last week of school every year. I’ll tell you about that in my next story.
Even today I love the excitement of Christmas and enjoy the month-long celebrations. A few years ago, I began collecting lighted houses. Setting up the Christmas village in my living room reminds me of that happy event at KA.
When I look back, I’m always amazed and grateful that Aunt Linda Klassen and Aunt Frieda Quarles, our boarding school cooks, sacrificially gave the gift of their time to hand-craft this quintessential piece of art every December.
For four months I’d lived away from my parents, and December 1st signaled I would soon return to them. The Candy House and additional holiday events at KA heightened my desire for the long separation to end. The cozy portrayal of sweet family life made me wish even more for my days at Egbe. I was grateful that the porch light of home, my real home, was finally shining at the end of the tunnel.
Thus, it was bittersweet surveying the enchanting fantasy land that I viewed dimly through the plastic sheeting. Home seemed the same – a whimsical realm with cut-out shapes of a mom, dad, and siblings. That thought saddened me, and since I hadn’t adjusted to being separated from my family, I began to make up my mind that I wouldn’t return to school. Even though it offered the enticing, gingerbread display and other holiday surprises, KA could never be home.
What I Know Now
It occurs to me that this sweet, gingerbread creation possibly represented an adult’s way of expressing a similar longing for something more. The romanticized Victorian snowy scene was certainly different from our humid African holiday. Did it point to a common desire for connection with family and friends while far away in Africa?
As an adult, I sometimes dream of heaven and being free from separations – physical and emotional. I’ve also learned that being with loved ones can bring warm feelings, but unreliably so. What I really want is to know and feel God’s reliable love in every setting.
Link It to Your Life
Have you ever thought that life is one-dimensional – either all good or all bad? Are the holidays a bittersweet time for you? What can you do this month to discover joy despite past or present disappointments? Name one step you could take to satisfy your desire for connectedness.
Father, help me to feel at home in your love, even if life around me isn’t picture-perfect. Let me see that your love always lights my way and that you always seek to be connected with me.