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Jessica Opoku's Greatest Gift Was Learning The True Spirit Of Christmas In Ghana

Celebrating with a vibrant, loving community altered her perspective about what the holidays mean.
Jessica Opoku's first Christmas in Ghana.
Jessica Opoku's first Christmas in Ghana.

HuffPost Canada

The shrill roosters' crows jolted Jessica Opoku out of her slumber. But she wasn't upset by the raucous wake-up call. It was Christmas morning after all, and no self-respecting kid sleeps in.

Sun blazed over her home as the then six-year-old Opoku got ready for a day with friends and family in the neighbourhood, to be spent singing and dancing to African hymns.

This first Christmas in Accra, Ghana for Opoku was a very different experience than her Christmases before, which was filled with snow and stories of reindeers traipsing on rooftops in Hamilton, Ont., where she was born.

Shortly before Christmas in the early 1990s, her family told her they were going on vacation to Ghana. Except, the vacation turned into a four-year move to her parents' birth country.

Opoku's grandmother had suffered a stroke and her parents were unsure of how long she would live. Her concerned mother really wanted the family to spend time with their gran and for Opoku to meet her for the first time.

Jessica Opoku celebrating Christmas in Ghana with her family.
Jessica Opoku celebrating Christmas in Ghana with her family.

So, in October in 1991, her family boarded a plane for Africa.

The relocation was unexpected and uneasy at first. Everyone spoke the local dialect of "Twi," so Opoku couldn't understand a word anyone was saying when they first arrived.

"But, then I looked around and felt comforted knowing that they all looked like me," the now 32-year-old told HuffPost Canada from her current home in Toronto. Back in Hamilton, she was the only black girl in kindergarten, which sometimes made her feel like she didn't belong.

Any initial hesitation she faced about her new home was quickly alleviated once Christmastime rolled around. The joy and love she felt from her vibrant community in a rural area of Accra made her feel at home.

"We walked around the neighbourhood, going from house to house, greeting one another by saying 'Afehyiapa oo,' which means, 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,'" said Opoku.

"It was like everyone in the community had an open-door policy, people were coming and going, singing and eating, celebrating one another. The community really cared for one another and everyone knew each other."

She and her friends would play games that were fuelled by their vivid imaginations — no toys or gadgets required.

"It was so freeing. It was an amazing experience, yet there was no snow, no reindeers, no Christmas tree and no presents. Rather, the holidays was about a celebration of Christ and community. It was so different from our Christmases in Canada," she said.

And Opoku can still remember the taste of the traditional home-cooked Ghanian dishes so vividly.

"By the aroma alone, I could tell there was palm nut soup, one of my favourites," she said excitedly. "Of course, the crunch and layered spices of the fried yams and plantain. There was so much flavour in everything."

Before the end of Christmas Day, the family would walk to church, where they prayed and sang their hearts out.

"There was always a singing competition at the church among the singers of each family. That meant my mother, sister, cousin and I would walk to the altar to sing a few of our favourite Twi songs. The competition was stiff, but it was all done in fun and love."

Top photo: Ghanian palm nut soup above. Bottom photo: fried yams and plantain.
Top photo: Ghanian palm nut soup above. Bottom photo: fried yams and plantain.

After four years of living in Ghana, her family returned to Hamilton. And to this day, Opoku still misses celebrating Christmas in her family's home country.

"As a child, I believed in Santa and the idea of receiving gifts. I expected to be unwrapping gifts on the 25th no matter what," said Opoku. "But then, through my experience in Ghana, I realized community and the company of people, in whatever capacity, is the best gift of all."

The program analyst and motivational speaker with Speakers Slam said that she has carried her Christmas experiences with her back to Canada. For the Opoku family, Dec. 25 continues to revolve around a day of feasting on the Ghanaian food her mother makes to remind the family of their background.

"But we mostly really focus on family and community. We visit people unannounced and welcome unannounced visitors to eat," she said, laughing. "We spend time story-telling about how things used to be back home, and my mother, sister and I will jump into singing African hymns. It's really about trying to relive the memories."

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