Christmas time has always been my favorite time of year. I look forward to a house full of extended family, Christmas music, decorating the interior and exterior of the house, the smell of freshly baked cookies permeating the kitchen, and the beautiful hymns played at church on Christmas Eve. By far my favorite aspect of the giving season is selecting a gift for each family member. I love thinking about their interests, their taste, hunting for a present I know they’ll love and use frequently, and finally watching their reaction as they rip the beautiful wrapping paper on Christmas morning.

This year has brought new meaning to Christmas and the spirit of giving. Over the past summer, I had the opportunity and privilege to visit the East African country Tanzania for a three-week service trip. My group and I assisted in the small village of Maji-Moto, a community consisting mostly of people of ancient Masai tribe descent. We built a school administration building, painted the exterior of their primary school, and created a map of their village. In addition to the collective service work, each student in my group chose and pursued a personal project to better understand the Masai’s culture, or explore aspects of Tanzania as a whole.

After briefly studying the Masai in my African Studies class during my junior year, I was curious to hear more about the Masai people from the locals. I arranged a meeting with four Masai elders selected by the primary school principal, who served as my translator from Swahili to English. The elders and I exchanged many details about our cultures, countries and customs, some having to do with marriage and family, and others school and gender roles. However, I found their insight on Christmas most beautiful, and enjoyed hearing how they celebrate.

The elders described how their quaint, peaceful village saves money all year to gather together and decorate their church with strings of lights. The elders explained how mothers and children travel past their fields of crops to where the goats graze and gather dried tall grasses. They carry the grasses back to their homes and sit outside together designing their baskets, choosing the different shades of grass to sew in and out in a detailed pattern. The women hang these baskets in arranged circles on the outsides of homes and various buildings throughout town. Everyone gathers for a big feast on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The church service is less a service, and more of a celebration with loud music and dancing nearly all day Christmas Eve and Christmas. The starlit village shimmers a bit brighter on Christmas Eve, each home illuminated by any and every candle. Together, the village shines so bright that they imagine the light imitates the star above Jesus the night he was born.

Joyous music, decorations, lights, it was all so familiar — except for gifts.

Every member of the family either saves their money, or sets aside time to invest or create gifts for their family. Gifts range from straw dolls, to beautiful cloth fabrics, but across the board, the elders stressed the significance of the priest’s and parents’ gift to every child: a piece of fruit. Your parents might give you a banana, and the priest a passion fruit, but regardless, a child is guaranteed the gift of a fruit from a parent, the priest, or both every year.

This seemingly simple gift, with no more significance to the Masai besides “tradition,” touched me deeply. I love passion fruit. I learned that very quickly on my trip to Rwanda the year prior, and passion fruit and I were inseparable again in Tanzania. I like to describe them as the fruit version of the candy “Starbursts,” so it’s no wonder any child would happily accept this delicious fruit. However, to me the fruit represents stability, for this gift will always be a constant in the children’s life.

Additionally, the fruit symbolizes the importance of simplicity, and minimization. A sweet, pleasurous bite of fruit satisfies the taste buds, but it also provides us the nourishment we need to live: fruit is a natural gift. Food, water, shelter, family are all natural gifts, and that is what we should be reminded of, what we should be thankful for during the holidays.

Christmas, Easter, birthdays, many holidays in general are surrounded by materialism. People have sculpted the once pure idea of a holiday — a day of rest, worship, and gratitude — into a complicated premise of the initial basis of the holiday itself. I am not criticizing society, because again, I love Christmas. I have always loved how my family and community celebrates; Tanzania just reminded me of how simple celebrating truly is…

All I need this Christmas is to sing a few holiday carols with my school choir, catch up with my cousins over some eggnog, peace, rest, and happiness. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I guarantee that my whole family will receive and enjoy a scrumptious passion fruit.

Madeline Pennino is a senior at Wilton High School.

She shares this column with three classmates.