I'd almost forgotten what Christmas was. As impossible as it sounds, it's actually more reasonable than you'd imagine. A certain milestone is long-acknowledged among us young adults, that marker when Christmas stops being a juicy gift-fest bestowing the latest in technology or clothing vouchers and switches over to something a little more reserved, more mature. We start buying "ourselves" presents, and the whole holiday season suddenly finds itself more focused on family togetherness than sheer materialism. Oftentimes, nieces or nephews have since entered the picture, therefore diverting attention away from our perfumes and Playstation games as the festive magic discovers a new lease of life. Throughout my childhood, the only purpose my parents served on Christmas morning was to supplement Santa's hedonistic haul with some additional trinkets, on top of day-long gluttonous nourishment. Now I find myself yearning for their company at this time of year as much to satisfy my own homesickness as to appease their anxiety about my well-being. After having successfully survived the last three years' festivities in basic training, Djibouti and Afghanistan respectively, I'd only momentarily hesitate before saying that they can rest assured for this year. After all, you never know……
The motto reads "Legio Patria Nostra". The Legion is our fatherland. Our home. Once upon a time I considered this motto slightly archaic, daresay obsolete given these modern times we live in, times of perennial connection to every nook and cranny of the planet. But this Christmas something changed. Something inside forced me to take a step back to the very edge of the frame, to try to digest the entirety of this cracked, crazy, cacophonous canvas of the strange. Finding myself roped into arguably the most tedious duty in the Legion at Christmas time - the dreaded "Crèche" - I had initially held a discreet send-off party for the sum total of my festive cheer as the two weeks leading up to Christmas Eve prepared to be inundated with the unenviable duty of rummaging around in rubbish bins and scavenging through the catacomb-like basement of the company building in search of any material deemed usable for the construction of our company creche.
The Legion crèche is a scale model inspired by whatever theme has been decided by the superiors earlier in the year (ie. 2 weeks before the thing is due to be finished), typically encompassing legion postings overseas and culminating in the appearance of the nativity scene placed centrally in the display.
And so, with a sarcastic, impatient, yet essentially motivated platoon sergeant at the helm, I was introduced to my team for this particular challenge. Enter the Zimbabwean, the Nepalese, the Czech and the Mexican. Four countries, four continents, yet in an incredibly convenient turn of events, one language. Thus English reigned in the converted classroom as we set to work. The idea was for each of the four to recount their last Christmas, in their native countries, before coming to the Legion. They each were responsible for their own corner of the display table, decorating it appropriately to reflect a typical landscape from their home country. That was their job. Mine was to take them one by one, co-construct a coherent script for each legionnaire to read, and record it on to my mac before then mixing in traditional music to play in the background as the speeches were read out. Not as easy (or as fun) as it sounds.
The models progressed, the scripts tightened up further, the music settled on a definitive playlist, and eventually the lighting entered the ring for an all-out royal rumble on my patience, nerves and concentration. The judging would be on the 23rd (by the colonel, no less - our creche being one of eight prepared by different companies and groups from the regiment) while the 24th would be an open-door-day for families of serving legionnaires as well as any interested civilians who cared to pop in for a look. By lunchtime on the 24th, the fatigue and ennui had reached boiling point. The heat in the classroom was causing the four guys (who had to remain standing perfectly still behind their respective scenes during the ten-minute-long performance) to slowly lose consciousness, as well as causing my sweating hands to slip on the mouse touch-pad, threatening to derail my delicately balanced sound-mixing duties. Unknown to me, however, was another factor at work, slowly chipping away at the guys' festive spirit. It was explained to me over a beer later in the evening;
"It's actually quite hard, hearing your own voice relive a fantastic Christmas spent with all your family and friends back home in Mexico, and you being stuck in this stuffy classroom like some museum exhibit for all these strangers."
For my Zimbabwean friend, the melancholy touched deeper still.
"I really don't want to hear that recording again. The government took our farm, our home. That fantastical Christmas can never be repeated again. I can't bear to think of some fat politician sitting on my porch, eating at my table. It's too much."
The guys from Czech Republic and Nepal shared similar sentiments. Everyone was more than relieved when the sergeant came into the classroom to announce the end of our infernal shift. The bar beckoned. The company enjoyed a large Christmas meal together, followed by the traditional gift-giving, where the company captain hands each legionnaire a gift. The "sketches" then kicked off, where the corporals and legionnaires prepare comedic skits on their commanding officers. I myself hopped up on stage with a Russian friend, guitars-in-hand, to perform a rendition of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" of all tunes. It went down to raucous applause (I later found out from my captain that the colonel - who was coincidentally in attendance - had attempted to sing along, without knowing a single correct lyric). Fair play!
The night, overall, was a resounding success. Our crèche placed third out of eight, which was a respectable result. Sat around in a circle, though, the crèche team took to recounting more recent memories, those accumulated in our (relatively short/long) time in the Legion. Some stories had us in tears with laughter. Bottles clinked, toasts were called, more stories, more tears, more bottles. Our distant homes were, for once, at the back of our mind as the limelight shone down on this little huddled circle of new-found brothers, in a new-found home. Perhaps Christmas has traversed another rung on the evolutionary ladder. Perhaps, for the time being, this is what it's all about.
I sure hope so.
Merry Christmas to one and all.