There was a time before Vietnam and the Middle East terrorism when the world’s attention was riveted on Africa and the former Belgian colony of the Congo in particular. Independence six months before had brought widespread riots, a military rebellion, vast destruction, the departure of the European settlers and hundreds of deaths. Since that time comparable scenes seemingly have become commonplace, but in those days past it was all quite new.
International journalism reacted first by flooding the capital — then called Leopoldville — with the top line of their correspondents. Six months later, in December, most of the first rank media had moved on or simply left to spend the holidays at home. The Congo had become old news.
In addition to the wire service reporters and permanently assigned newspapermen, the once bustling city of Leopoldville was host to tens of diplomatic personnel. Augmenting the presence of these foreign government officials was a newly arrived sizable contingent of United Nations soldiers along with a few civilian staffers.
A small contingent of Belgian civilians had filtered back. With them came a number of business types of varied hue seeking whatever was left over from the carcass of one of the jewels of colonial crowns. Intelligence operators from the several echelons of the Cold War moved about seeking whatever advantages their sponsoring countries hoped to gain from the new African battleground.
To this topsy-turvy world came the unstoppable force of — Christmas. The holiday had been introduced in the Congo at the turn-of-the-century by Christian missionaries and priests. “Père Noël,” as Santa Claus is known in French-speaking regions, carried a special and very much needed message that year.
Somehow the shops that hadn’t been smashed or abandoned during the riots pulled themselves together enough to have goods shipped across the Congo River from the twin colonial city of Brazzaville of the former French Congo.
Swathes of colorful cloth and white cotton imitation snow combined with smiling portraits of “Père Noël” decked the fronts of the reopened shops. Some truly aggressive entrepreneurs had arranged for a few bundles of evergreen trees to be flown in from the mountains of North Kivu for the Europeans. Christian Congolese in their dusty townships trimmed their own makeshift trees with colored paper and cards of saints
The diplomatic missions arranged for traditional foods of their several nations to be flown in from Europe. The few restaurants that were open adorned themselves in holiday trimming and menus for special feasts.
“Joyeux Noël” became the accepted greeting in every work place, in each of the three hotels still operating, and even among the English-speaking Ghanaian troops and Nigerian police who patrolled the streets. Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Père Noël for this short while ruled Leopoldville. But the real change was the friendliness shown toward each other by the Congolese and the few Europeans.
The Congolese workers at the main post office’s telex facility initiated their principal clients, the foreign correspondents, into the tradition of gift giving appropriate to the season. This meant some rather substantial tips being doled out in place of the modest gratuities that were part of everyday filings. One particularly efficient telex operator kept a carefully typed record of all his gifts. Christmas presents carried a promise of excellent service in the New Year. It was not that much different from other great capitals.
At the American Embassy it was reported that somebody dressed as Santa Claus had given out presents to local children until the gifts ran out. It was hard to confirm this act of enlightened diplomacy, but it was well known that members of several embassies had banded together in a traveling troupe of carolers. Eggnog made of dried milk, water, and brandy lubricated their voices. The Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy were ceremoniously serenaded and responded with one of their rare smiles and a friendly salute.
Perhaps the most telling comment on the celebration of Christmas in the Congo in 1960 was made by the correspondent of the Soviet news service, TASS — who, by the way, was one of their best intelligence officers. In his movie-like accented English, Fedyashin said, “This is fun. It’s good to have Christmas.”
For that brief time the tension and turmoil lost its bite and peace on earth had a special meaning in the Congo. Joyeux Noël, tout le monde!
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