by Joseph Olamide Babalola
“Do you know I’m older than Jesus?”
Bayo’s eyes widen at the instant, unable to believe my words. He casts a doubtful glance around the room to confirm whether I am the one who just spoke or the sound merely streamed from my side. In a playful gesture, he pulls his hands hard against his chest and jerks as though suffering a heart attack. At the same moment, he flashes an awkward smile at me, his upper lip lifted to reveal his creamy-white teeth. And as though he has just given it a second thought, he bursts into a peal of wild laughter and almost rolls off the chair.
C’mon Bayo, nothing’s funny here, I want to yell at him, but I swallow it, as painful as that goes. I do not understand how my straight question could have provoked his unnecessary display of mockery. But again, I play it cool and act as though I do not care for whatever way he reacts.
I pick up the bottle of Bigi Cola before me and plug my mouth into it for a sip. As I rest my back against the chair, I still find it hard to keep my mind off Bayo, who is yet unable to control his laughter. But why? I wonder. Why? Or is my mouth smelling?
In a few seconds, his infectious laughter invokes mine. I find myself chuckling involuntarily and fighting hard not to switch to full laughter. Something must be wrong somewhere, and I cannot wait for Bayo to cut the drama and say his mind.
As soon as he calms down enough to speak, he taps me twice—maybe to provoke me more—and says, “Bobo, did you hear yourself at all?”
“Eh ehn? What?”
“Jesus! You mean those words didn’t itch your tongue as you uttered them?”
“Oh God, Bayo.” I shower him with the What’s-the-big-deal face followed by a Why-are-you-like-this eyeing. “See, just forget it. Forget it.”
I pick my Bigi Cola and turn away. This is one of the moments I doubt whether I wasn’t dozing on the day we became friends at church. It feels like a betrayal of some sort that Bayo is doing this to me at all. He has been my best friend all along, and we even celebrated our thirteenth birthday together last year. But I have always found it hard to keep up with his quick judgment and cutting remarks. I expect him to at least ask why I said what I said before he decides to tell me off.
Maybe patience is not a luxury Bayo can ever afford. Maybe I am the one expecting too much, thereby getting what I deserve: disappointment. But his reaction to my statement is not totally strange. It has an air of familiarity around it.
Yes, the first time I made the exact statement to my parents was last Christmas dinner. Mum bit her tongue and almost choked on her Jollof. She laughed a good deal before asking how old I thought I was—and what audacity! I said I was twelve and counting, but that…. Mum said there was no But. Nothing like but, okay? I kept mum. Dad was, however, more interested in how I would defend my claim than whether my claim was valid or not. So, he dropped his spoon, sat back, and folded his arms.
“How are you older than Jesus?”
“Erm… erm… yesterday, twenty-fourth was my birthday, right?”
“And Jesus is born today, twenty-fifth, isn’t it?”
Dad got the gist. He simply smiled at me, picked up his spoon, and said nothing more. His smile was cryptic. I could not read a definite meaning to it.
But I guess he must have felt lucky to have a son like me—the only son he had, has, and would ever have.
Seconds have transformed minutes into hours, days into weeks, and months into years, and yes, I will clock twenty-two this year. But jumping into the present feels like a fraudulent leap in time, especially when the past is yet to be properly accounted for.
I remember when I was fifteen and beardless. It was a tough war getting Dad to agree to release an unoccupied bedroom in the house to me. But when he eventually agreed I could now sleep alone and manage my own space, he said he was happy I was fast becoming a young man. It did not mean much at the time, but it sounded like a compliment—until he bought only a small gift for my next birthday.
On my sixteenth birthday, gifts ceased completely. Dad only dedicated a part of the family Morning Prayer time for me. He asked me to kneel while he blessed me and committed the bulk of my years ahead to God. Afterwards, the whole house sang the over-sung Happy Birthday To You and then shouted the clichéd hoorays. Everyone got a bottle of Tito yogurt while I got two as per being the celebrant. And yes, that was the whole celebration. I had to force myself to believe that was all part of what it meant to become a young man. But it was merely a weak attempt at self-consolation, so I grumbled within and feigned normalcy without.
As the Christmas day celebration started the next day, I was not overjoyed to wear my new Ankara outfit to church. I was not okay with the fact that new clothes were the default Christmas gift from my parents and nothing more except that we enjoyed my jollof rice in the morning and pounded yam in the afternoon with unusually big chicken. But at the heart of all the wining and dining that happened later that day, I forgot I had just managed through an almost gift-less birthday. But why must the celebration of Jesus’ birth be always sweeter than mine, especially when I was a day older? No idea.
When Boxing Day kicked in, as usual, Dad followed the same pattern he had followed since the year I got a personal bedroom: he gifted me a new calendar. At first, it looked strange and unimaginable—which African father refuses to give his son a birthday gift on the twenty-fourth, and almost nothing on the twenty-fifth, and yet a small calendar on the twenty-sixth?
It was quite hard to grasp for some years. Yeah, until I accepted it as the new normal. Until I understood prayers were much more beneficial than whatever material gift Dad could lavish me with. Until I understood my popular Jesus received birthday gifts only once in his entire lifetime, and that too, in the humility of a manger.
As years piled, I concluded that Dad gifting me a calendar was not totally a bad idea. It always came in handy each new year. Dad’s calendars were always compact and colorful, bearing the name of the printing press where he worked. It made the calendars feel more like a normal item than a gift. So instead of sitting them on my study table as expected, I always kept them hidden away in my unused travel bag, to be withdrawn only when needed.
The beautiful nature photography on the calendars never caught my fancy. Yet upon collection of each new one, I would browse through the pages until I reached the last one. I would look out for the day my next birthday was to fall on. I would not be surprised to see the twenty-fifth of December circled in a glowing red, and these words stealing the show in the footer: Jesus is the reason for the season!
I will clock twenty-two this Christmas Eve, and many things have changed. Looking back in time, Christmas has always meant different things to me. And while I may not like to admit it, I am partly ashamed of how I perceived previous Christmases, even the one I celebrated two years ago.
But I have reconciled with the fact that I got it all wrong at a time, just like a child whose green eyes could not tell a toad apart from a frog. No matter how flawed some of my earliest perceptions now seem, it is only because I have outgrown them.
At a certain time, noel was all about Santa. A white-bearded Santa would arrive at my primary school from Rome in his bright red and white. We called him Father Christmas. He always gestured to pupils, carried the ones whose weight he could manage, danced mostly off-beat, and tried less-sophisticated stunts to score cheap points from us. He did whatever provoked our smiles as we tailed along and sang out our hearts to his generosity.
As much as it lied within our power, we lavished on him all the happiness we saved up the whole year. And after the show, he was always gracious enough to reciprocate. He would bless us with wishes and gifts, mostly plastics—gifts our parents had paid for. Then we returned home in euphoria and started saving up our happiness until the next time he would show his masked face. Such a lovely time to be alive, only that we soon lost our innocence to time.
In a matter of years, Santa became the pretentious middle-aged uncle who lived two blocks away, whose voice and potbelly I recognized as surely as the deep potholes on the way to the market square. That was when and how Santa lost his magic on me. Even if I smiled at the friendly masquerade in red, it was only at the naivety of the younger ones who were rightfully captured by his theatrics. I’ve been there before, I would say to whatever listening ear was available, and then smile again before looking away.
In line with everything around me, Christmas became a mere holiday season filled with fun. I started noticing how cars and motorcycles trooped into town as though a coordinated invasion was happening. The hustle and bustle of Ogbomoso streets got more heightened as the Christmas peaked. Honks became the new uncoordinated music as I trekked the streets. Parents warned their wards to be careful while using the road. People grew more sensitive, not necessarily more caring. Merry Christmas and Prosperous New Year signs appeared all over town, at junctions and bus stops, wherever anything could hang and catch sights.
Ogbomoso would take a life of its own, stirred up and shaken, booming and flourishing, full of lights and liveliness, animated in different shades of red and green. It was the best of times for almost everyone, except for whoever was allergic to red and green. Only visually-challenged persons would not see it in banks, malls, shopping complexes, event halls, secretariats, eateries, even in the dumplings on the most unexpected of dunghills.
But inside our house, nothing really changed. No Christmas tree like the ones we saw on TV, or anything pointing to it. Even our Christmas dinner was almost no different from our usual one, except that we bless our foods before eating. And since friends and family would not visit us until New Year had closed in on us all, the same old routine continues.
Nonetheless, Christmas became more fun in other ways for me. I enjoyed attending whatever carol organized by whichever choir body. The billboards were always occupied with enough of such banners. The graphic designs spoke volumes as different Christian organizations promoted their carols with beautiful faces of invited gospel artistes, the popular and the upcoming. Posters rented the fences as you walked down the major streets. You could even meet random persons handing over flyers for carols, wooing you to partake and also invite a friend, because it would be super glorious.
I was always lucky to escape our fenced compound and launch into the streets, especially before we went to church for the Christmas Eve program. I strolled through neighboring streets and tried observing and digesting what was going on. As I moved around, I discovered that, against what I already know, Christmas also ushered in a season of recklessness—or better put, people found the good noel a perfect excuse for untamed indulgences. Reckless parties were held at different spots, and it surprised me that young boys like myself were active participants.
If you passed by the uncompleted building along Kajola market, the air over there was always filled with the acrid smell of tobacco and weed, so much you thought Christmas was all about being high and getting high. You would wonder whether these people were that keen on celebrating Jesus in their reverse way, or if at all they were celebrating the Jesus you thought they should be celebrating. It was always a confusing mix of wonder and pity.
After observing them to the point I could no longer bear, I would shake my head and mumble, Has Jesus stopped being the reason for the season?
I clock twenty-two today, and I have never felt happier. It is seven in the evening and the town roars in the distant air. I am in my room holding a pamphlet with a cover page that reads in big letters: If not God, then who?
I think about the thousands of things that could have gone wrong in previous years. This brings me to the understanding that it is a privilege to witness another year. Now I know the craving for gifts, calls, texts, social media posts, cards, Happy Birthday To You songs, treats, and all of those lovelies that once mattered is needless. Although I have received them in all gratitude today, they do not mean the whole world to me—and wow, it feels liberating.
It means I will not have to pick fights with anybody for not celebrating me or celebrating me below my expectation—not even with Bayo who saw my WhatsApp status updates all day but is yet to say or type the littlest HBD LLNP.
My value system must have shifted a lot, maybe even totally changed. Now I cherish the simple virtues I once belittled. This morning during the family prayer I said eager and genuine Amen as Dad and others prayed for me. This evening I have kneeled in a corner of this room, took my time to reflect on the highs and lows of the spent days that culminated into past years, and then thanked God for another grace to be born a day ahead of Jesus. When Dad kept his ritual of giving the celebrant a double portion of what others get as refreshment, I valued the privilege and said heartfelt thanks.
Now, I know I have billions of things to be grateful for. From the simplest miracle of breaking wind freely any time I want, to the sophisticated wonder of sleeping at night and waking every morning. I wish I understood this earlier enough—it would have saved me a thousand headaches and depression I had had to suffer through.
Now I understand that even though I do not have everything my heart desires, even though my prayer points are still as numerous as the days of Methuselah, even though I have bagged my bachelor’s degree but still unemployed, even though I have acne covering my face as though I am the vilest offender; I cannot but boldly seat my soul down and say in thankful tears: Bless the Lord oh my soul, and forget not all His benefits.
And when dawn breaks tomorrow, Jesus’ birthday will light up differently. It does not matter whether or not I now know December 25 is not actually Jesus’ birthday but the day we have chosen to celebrate his miraculous birth every year; it does not matter whether or not there is a new outfit to try out; it does not matter whether or not there would be salad and big chicken to grace Mum’s Jollof and fried rice with; all that would matter most to me is Jesus the celebrant, the unfathomable riches of his birth, and the salvation it brought to humanity.
I will appreciate the chance to spend time with my family and loved ones. If Bayo comes around, I will reprove him at first, but bond with him nonetheless. When the time is right, I will gift Dad the new pair of glasses I bought last week. I will not wait until Boxing Day when he would gift me the calendar for another year.
Beyond all, I will set aside a time to reflect on the essence of Jesus’ birth to my life. There are more than enough people in my neighborhood to share the love with. And yes, I will go online too and spread the love, for I know this to be true: the celebrant is Jesus; Jesus is the message; the message is salvation; the salvation is free; the freedom is for this season and beyond.
But since tomorrow is still many heartbeats away, many snores away, I will enjoy this Silent night, holy night. It is half-past seven, and it is unbelievable that I have spent the last thirty minutes poring over the If not God, then who? pamphlet.
Dad just called my name now. I know the drill. It is time to launch into the heart of Christmas Eve. We will keep a little vigil, just like the shepherds did thousands of nights ago in the bush—only that ours will be within the confines of our decorated church auditorium. We may not fully identify with what it meant for Mother Mary to labour and deliver the savior in the cold night of a stinking manger, but we will forever partake in the good news it brought. Joy to the world, the Lord has come, isn’t it?
Joseph Olamide Babalola is a writer and poet whose heartfelt love for literary creativity is unending. Shortlisted for the 2021 K&L African Prize and African Writers Award, his creative pieces have appeared in/on 101words, Poetica, Kreative Diadem, Praxis Magazine, MONUS2.0, Tall Tales Anthology, WordFest’19 and others. He lives in Southwest Nigeria where he daily engages with creative arts and nature.