The Three Christmases of the Holy Land
by Taline Voskeritchian, guest contributor
In the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the first of three Christmas celebrations was on December 24, the Christmas of the English, or so we thought of it then in the years of my adolescence. My family — ethnic Armenians, Christians by subscription more than piety — had settled in Jordan, a largely Muslim country, where I grew into adulthood, pulled this way and that by the three Christmases of the Holy Land. Of course it was a misnomer to call it the Christmas of the English because December 24 was celebrated by Catholic and Protestant Arabs as well.
In those days, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Middle East was a very different place from what it has become of late. Unlike the Christians of Iraq today, we had little fear, did not hide our religious affiliation but did not brag about it either. In the Holy Land of those times, celebrations of Christmas were for us and Muslims, at least at our post-colonial school which had been run for many years by English missionaries; it had a mixed student body of Christians and Muslims.
For me, the home of the English Christmas was the Ahliyyah School for Girls, which I attended after third grade and all the way to the end. The Ahliyyah, which is still a thriving school, was the successor to the Christian Missionary School, whose British headmistress was whisked away in the wake of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. The school’s name was changed, as well as the board. The Christmas celebrations persisted.
The Christmas of the English would arrive with pomp and circumstance. On the last day before the beginning of the New Year vacation, the whole school would gather in the hall of the main building, a regal colonial structure of limestone exterior surrounded by eucalyptus trees in that beautiful part of the Jordanian capital, Old Amman. The ceremonies would begin at mid-morning, and in no time the main hall would be packed, buzzing with the chirps of adolescent girls. Then the curtain would open, and the stage would come alive with the re-telling of the nativity story, complete with the manger, a huge Christmas tree, and carols.
For us all, Christian and Muslim girls alike, the high point came after the conclusion of the nativity story. The ceremony would end with the offerings of each class to the Palestinian refugees. Little by little, the entire stage would be filled with canned and dried foods and sacks of grains we had brought from home. In less than an hour, the entire stage would be transformed into a big warehouse as the notes of the last carol — it was “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” as I recall — would resound. Before leaving for home, we would often see the trucks parked in front of our school preparing to transport the provisions to the refugees camps in and around Amman.
Less than two weeks later would come the Christmas of the Orthodox, which was the “real” one we were told. The Christmas of the Orthodox was our Christmas, and for all my mother’s love of caroling and many things British (Agatha Christie to Golden Syrup), the Christmas of the Orthodox was an act of interiority, of attending the Christmas Eve celebrations at our Armenian church, followed by a simple Christmas Eve meal.
On January 5, Christmas Eve, we would have the traditional meatless meal of plaki (white bean soup), parsley and egg patties, lentil koufté. The dessert would be boiled hulled wheat with dried fruits and nuts. My grandmother had the habit of placing a coin in the mixture. Whoever “got” the coin would have good luck for the entire year. But the highlight of the evening was the avédis (“good news,” in Armenian). With bated breaths we all waited until after midnight for the arrival of the group of young men, who came up the stairs with chants which heralded the good news of Christmas. For a few minutes, the entire world would appear suspended as the voices of the singers resounded through the dark quiet of our building. The group would be offered liquor and sweets and then head out to the next Armenian home. Often, the neighbors in our apartment building also waited though many of them were Catholic and Protestant Arabs, and some were Muslim.
On Christmas day, January 6, the sweet fragrance of incense mixed with the voices of the faithful, the chants of the choir with the tolling of the bells, the murmur of prayer with rustle of the cymbals and censers. The whole thing was a feast of the senses to be sure, but the Christmas of the Orthodox tied us to our sources, as it were, told us, lest we had forgotten that the Christmas of the English was fine and good, but this one, this Christmas, was ours, was full of pageantry and sensuality of the sort you could not dream of in the carols of the English.
English Christmas was just a bunch of carols, my mother would often declare, perhaps trying to sum up enough enthusiasm to make it to church yet again — my mother contradicting herself again. My grandmother was more vocal. Although she practiced a very private kind of piety and had only contempt for the men of the cloth, but when it came to the Christmas of the English, she was all venom which the hulled wheat dessert for all its playfulness could quell only temporarily. They are not Christians, she would say. By they, she meant the Catholics and the Protestants.
The contrast between the two Christmases was striking for all it told me about the huge divides in whose web we were all tossed and turned. The intensity of the contrast has not abated with the passing of time. To this day, I catch myself saying, “But December 24 is not our Christmas!” The minute the words come out of my mouth I am caught. I secretly crave for the whole thing to go away, and for us all to be one happy family of celebrants — lapsed and pious alike. Oh, let’s settle for the first one, the one accepted universally at the true and real Christmas!
Orthodox Armenian priests take part in a Christmas celebration inside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. While most Armenian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6th, the Orthodox Armenians of Jerusalem mark the birth of Jesus on January 18. (photo: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)
But I wish that such resolution would tell the whole story. In the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, there was a third Christmas, the Christmas of the Jerusalem Armenians, that unique species of human being who are at once blessed and cursed by the madness of Jerusalem. You can tell a Jerusalem Armenian from a kilometer away, the saying goes.
The Jerusalem Armenian Christmas was on January 18, yes, almost three weeks after the English Christmas. A blimp on the Christmas inventory, perhaps, but not for the Jerusalem Armenians who pride themselves on being the custodians (through the Brotherhood of St. James) of the Armenian Quarter, one-fourth of the Old City. The Jerusalem Armenian calendar was such that New Year, January 13, came before Christmas, January 18.
The Jerusalem Armenian Christmas often meant traveling by car from Amman to Jerusalem. In those days, when Jerusalem was under Jordanian jurisdiction, the drive was less than an hour long, and a most pleasant one free of borders and checkpoints and passport examinations. And so the taxi would arrive early in the morning to take us to Jerusalem. We would get there at mid-day, go through the majestic iron gate of St. James Convent and head straight to the St. James Church, which was built in the twelfth century: the turn of the human face to the sacred, the waves of faith (and its lapse), the visceral beauty of the moment.
The church itself is what made the whole experience memorable beyond words, the church itself and the knowledge that we were in close proximity to the nativity story. St. James is a dizzying work of art, with a tiny door through which the congregation enters an illuminated space of chant and incense. There are no chairs, so we had to stand through the entire Mass, crowded against each other.
Sometimes, after the service, we would head north to Ramallah, for lunch, and then drive back home through the gentle, contoured landscape, which turned magenta in the sunset of the Holy Land. The Jerusalem Armenian Christmas was the secret one, the one which no one noticed save those in the know — for me, the most memorable Christmas of all, the Christmas for which you had to return to the source, the English and Orthodox Christmases mere prologues.
The three Christmases of the Holy Land. The Holy Land — there’s something quaint and innocent about the description, something a little passé, the term evoked these days only by the zealots of Christianity, the panderers in Christian kitch. But in my mind’s eye, my three Christmases have endured the passage of time, the ruptures, the departures, the returns — without gifts, without malls, without fancy meals, without the silly jingles passing off as Christmas music. By today’s standards, our Christmases back in the Holy Land were simple, even impoverished, but bountiful in image and sound and spirit and meaning, unpolluted by zeal and loud noise. Uncluttered, transcendent — in the dusty, contentious earth, the blood-soaked terrain of faith. They were also the source of so much internal tension about identity and loyalty and faith. But I would take all the heartache any day, any way, if I could.
Several years ago, I finally gave up the struggle to celebrate and honor all three Christmases of my adolescence, or so I thought. I made a secret decision that the Christmas of the English would be the one. I had lived in Boston the longest; Boston was home, or some semblance of it anyway. I decided to abide to this new order with as much loyalty as I could possibly muster. I was intent on making it a tradition, something like a peace treaty after a long war, or if not a peace treaty then at least a cease fire, something to anchor me, steady me.
With a fluttering heart, I decided to attend the Christmas Eve celebration at Trinity Church, in Copley Square in Boston, and make that church and that service mine until I die. The church looked beautiful and orderly in that Anglo-Saxon way of the Christmas of the English. Thousands of polite worshippers in their best clothes, with well behaved children and coiffed hair and pressed suits. It was a beautiful service; from time to time the hall resounded with the sound of carols as the congregation joined with the choir in melodies which were familiar yet so different from the carols of the Ahliyyah Christmas celebration.
Then, out of nowhere it seemed, everyone was singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” My eyes welled, something coalesced in my throat, something which spoke of loss for those other Christmases, the ones of the Holy Land — for the sudden arrival of the boys, up the stairs, their breaths exuding alcohol; for the stoop through the iron door of St. James, the minor drama of tasting the metal of the coin in the hulled wheat pudding. At that moment, that it was to be like this from now on: The tumble of years, the return of the English Christmas — my heart somewhere distant, wandering, wayward.
Taline Voskeritchian is a translator and teaches writing at Boston University. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The Nation, BookForum, London Review of Books, Agni Review, and in Alik (Iran), Warwick Review(UK), Daily Star/International Herald Tribune (Beirut). She also blogs at Passages Home.
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