Christmas through the years: “My big, beautiful Ghanaian-British festive mash-up”

Christmas this year will be different for so many of us. Arnelle Paterson describes her childhood festive memories – a mix of Ghanaian and British traditions, from pitta bread and highlife music to watching the EastEnders special.

I was born (25 years ago) and raised in west London with my older brother, by mixed race parents of Ghanaian, Irish, Scottish and Syrian descent. My mum was born in Ghana, my dad was born in the UK, but they both grew up in Ghana. The two Ghanaian dialects I grew up with reflected my parents’ differing patrilineal tribes – Ga and Krobo.

My earliest memories of Christmas still ignite my senses. The prickly feel of the Christmas tree’s needles on the tips of my fingers, the flapping sound as the decorations came out of their plastic bag, ready to adorn all four corners of the living room. The sea of chocolate that filled my belly as I happily gorged on a Christmas tub of Celebrations way before the big day. Twix and Milky Way were my favourites.

As soon as the clock struck midnight on Christmas Eve, the house phone came to life as relatives in the UK and back home in Ghana called, eager to impart their Christmas greetings. 

I would always smell Christmas Day before I was fully awake. My mum would wake up early to start marinating the chicken with a fusion of spices (she still has an aversion to how dry turkey can be). I loved to watch her in her element. 

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If I had to pick a soundtrack for Christmases past, it would be The Staple Singers’ 1972 track I’ll Take You There. I can hear the stereo system (which made a distinctively loud noise as it rewound itself – the aftermath of toddler Arnelle’s attempts at DJing) transmitting feel-good sound waves. Ghanaian highlife music, my dad’s vinyl record player and old school classics turned our living room into a dancefloor. 

My mum really showcased her cooking expertise at Christmas. Ghanaian pastries such as atsomo (a savoury version for the adults, a sweeter edition for my sweet tooth), meat pie, her beautifully seasoned lamb kebab, toasted pitta bread (a mini homage to the Levant, where my mum’s grandad came from) and fried plantain were all on the menu.

Her homemade Ghanaian cake was just one of many dessert options. I loved helping her glaze the meat pie, dipping my finger in the cake batter multiple times (I can confirm that despite her warnings about my overindulgence, I remained tummy ache free) and adding the finishing touches to her gorgeous Ghanaian salad. I still pride myself on being able to peel boiled eggs perfectly. If you need a Ghanaian twist to any dish, my mum is your girl. 

The festive period was filled with all manner of family members. Image: Arnelle Paterson

When it came to guests, you really didn’t know who to expect, or when. It could be a family friend you hadn’t seen in years, or a family member who lives hours away. It’s similar to the lifestyle in Ghana. Visitors will often drop by and will always be greeted with an assortment of dishes and refreshments. 

I used to live less than five minutes away from my maternal grandma, who would arrive first. She’d be dressed in her beloved black coat, ballerina shoes, and with her neck wrapped in a colourful pashmina. Her headwrap or hat addition were interchangeable. Using her knuckle, she would knock on the front door while simultaneously saying “kookoo ko” as a way of making her presence known and asking for permission to enter. My mum would reply “gba min” (come in). 

Two of my uncles who lived near me would follow later on in the day. You could sense the excitement as guests entered the house, eager for a generous helping of my mum’s food. Small portions for guests aren’t seen as good hospitality in a Ghanaian household. 

One of my uncles absolutely adored my mum’s cake with custard. My aunties and uncles from other parts of London would come, with their kids in tow. It was a pretty lucrative time for me – £20 notes galore.

We would divide where we spent our time at Christmas – going back and forth between my place and my grandma’s with my cousins. We always got told off for not staying in one place for too long, I now realise the sound of the flat buzzer going off umpteen times would drive anyone crazy. 

Alternatively, my north London family would host. Depending on where we were, the cooking was usually split between my mum’s little sister, my grandma and my mum. There were 17 of us in total, and that didn’t include other members of the family that may drop in. Sometimes, my mum and I would spend Christmas with my mum’s elder sister and her two daughters. We were never a sit-at-the-table type of family, but a balance-the-meal-on-your-lap kind of clan.

When I was around eight or nine, we started to incorporate British traditions, like Christmas crackers. While we appreciated the excitement of the act, nobody seemed enthused by the presents inside. When my north London family were around, all the music and festivities came to a standstill as soon as the Queen’s speech came on. With my east London family, my cousins wouldn’t dare to miss the EastEnders Christmas episode.

There was always a separation between us kids and the adults. My cousins and I would always be in a bedroom, while the adults were in the living room. I vividly remember the phrases “you don’t talk while adults are talking” and “you can’t be a child amongst adults”. It was frowned upon to mingle with or participate in any conversations that adults were having.

Nearly 20 years ago, I travelled to Ghana for the first time around Christmas. Six-year-old me was awoken at an ungodly hour and attacked by the shower. After donning my fanciest dress, with my curly hair secured into two bunches, I was ready for church in Somanya, a town in the eastern region of south Ghana, where my mum hails from. 

"When it came to guests, you really didn’t know who to expect, or when." Image: Arnelle Paterson

All the older folks were in their gladrags, but all the 18-to-30-year-olds seemed to be missing. My mum explained that when she was growing up, Christmas Eve in Ghana was all about partying for that generation (and nursing a hangover on Christmas morning). Experiencing Christmas in Ghana as an adult is on my bucket list!

As the years went by, and life got in the way, my extended family and I started to spend Christmas in our own respective homes. On Christmas Day 2018, it was just me and my mum until my grandma made an appearance in the evening. Last year, my mum’s younger brother popped in briefly. We spent the majority of Christmas at home with my brother.

Christmas 2020 will be very different. My mum’s very British (and very northern) partner has introduced us to pigs in blankets, Yorkshire puddings and good ol’ Bisto gravy and I’ve even got my own advent calendar. With those two in the kitchen, it’ll be the perfect amalgamation of an English-Ghanaian Christmas – I’ll definitely sneak some pitta bread in).

In Ga we say: “Blonya be lɛ eshɛ! Afi o afi! Afi aya ni e ba nina wɔ.” Translation: The Christmas season is here! The year should go, and a new one should come and meet us”.