When we were children we never knew him as Santa Claus. The portly man in the bright red suit with the white fluffy cotton trim and the thick snow-white woolly beard. The jolly red Saint Nicholas.
Back in Sierra Leone, we called him "Father Christmas." Methinks the name Santa Claus was either too foreign or the title Father Christmas was much easier to understand and relate to. Only those from very educated families called him Santa Claus. Back where we grew up there were not many of those.
As opposed to USA where there is usually a live Santa Claus at each major mall, it was very difficult to see a real Santa Claus or Father Christmas on the streets of Freetown in those days.
In the first place Santa Claus' suit is more fitted to the colder wintry climes. Even though we had the Harmattan wind blowing from the Sahel through Guinea into Freetown around that time, Santa Claus' suit was a major inconvenience to wear on the warm dusty streets of Eastern Freetown.
Secondly, Santa carried some weight. Sierra Leone is not renowned for portly men, except the politicians or very senior civil servants, in which case they wouldn't want to dress like Santa around Christmas. In Sierra Leone important people behaved like important people. That is what was expected.
Finally Santa was white, or so the pictures portray him. Finding a portly white man to dress like Santa Claus in Freetown those days would have been close to a miracle. The nearest we had to whites in Freetown were our Lebanese and Syrian brothers and the Indians. However, this group were either Muslims or Hindu. They were definitely not your typical "Father Christmas" crowd.
So if we could find one in those days, we usually had the lean, black Santa Claus who was prone to taking too many Star Beer bottles. We grew up thinking, mistakenly, that Santa was a drunk. In Freetown those days, Santa was almost always drunk. We had lean black Santas with a fondness for beer or illicit brew.
As a child, I never really liked Santa Claus or Father Christmas. Not that it was really my fault. Santa Claus in my young opinion only cared for the rich kids in Samaria School, and I was not one of them. After the Christmas holidays, when we all went back to school, the rich kids would always have the most beautiful toys left by Santa under their Christmas trees. Now if I had completed primary school in my hometown Segbwema, that wouldn't have been a problem, as Santa Claus never went to Segbwema. But I was dragged to Freetown for schooling at an early age and grew up to know that Santa Claus came to town around Christmas bearing gifts. For the rich children he brought the coolest toys. For the poor children, he brought the small plastic bag full of tiny green soldiers with guns. Somehow, Santa's gifts always seem to reflect how wealthy your parents were. So I grew up thinking that Santa did not like poor kids. The poor kids got those green toy soldiers for Christmas and after the holidays you would find them everywhere. Santa brought them to Freetown in abundance.
This Christmas Santa would not be making many trips to the Middle East. Islamic fundamentalism is making that area of the world a very dangerous place for Christians. It is at times like this that the world can learn a lesson or two from Sierra Leone. You see in Sierra Leone we may have our many problems, but we have enormous respect for other people's beliefs.
We live in the same communities, Muslims and Christians. On Friday the Muslims take over the towns and on Sundays the Muslims do. When we pray in schools and meetings, we leave room for religious democracy. Muslims pray and Christians pray. If you don't want to pray you keep quiet and respect the rights of those who want to pray. That's the way it is and hopefully that's they way it will always be. Jesus said love your neighbor as you love yourself. Christians in Sierra Leone practice this. The Quran instructs Muslims to tell those who do not believe that, "your way is yours and my way is mine." Sierra Leone Muslims believe this.
This Christmas all we ask for is a little religious tolerance.