In 1937, Irving Berlin wrote what is probably one of the most famous Yuletide songs in the world: White Christmas. Since then (or, more likely, since 1954 when it was released by Columbia Records), Christmas has never been the same.
So what was it before then? My children and grandchildren have no idea! And, actually, were it not for the accounts of my grandparents and elders as I grew up, I wouldn’t have either.
Christmas in the Middle East (and dare I say, all over the world?) was celebrated quietly, with family. Christmas Eve was a solemn time when people felt a deep sense of awe in reliving the joy of the Birth of Jesus. There was a magical feeling in the air, especially for Palestinians with their close proximity to the Holy City of Bethlehem. Children were excited that they would get to wear their new clothes and shoes the next day. They would, most probably, get to see many cousins and relatives and many of the older aunts and uncles would give them coins to celebrate the occasion. Most people went to church in the morning, after which they gathered at the home of the eldest male in the family, whence a big lunch was usually served. There was no exchange of presents; no decorated Christmas trees; no Santa Clause came.
However, and especially after the Second World War was over and the sadness and grief of all who suffered through it had somewhat abated, the world, breathing a collective sigh of relief, wanted to celebrate, to enjoy life and the new affluence that had begun manifesting itself in the big cities, in the new stores, in cinemas and theatres and plazas, with huge Christmas trees, with Santa Clause and presents under the tree and, of course, with carols and songs and . . . everyone dreaming of a White Christmas as Bing Crosby or Rosemary Clooney crooned in the background!
I have no recollection whatsoever of any Christmas celebration when we were in Jerusalem (I was under five years old). But, I do remember our family celebrations in Egypt. Family members with all their children gathered at our home, Santa came (and, I would later find out, in the person of my youngest Aunt) and distributed multiple presents to each of us after which the Christmas tree candles (real ones, at the time!) were lit and a festive meal was served. There was lots of laughter and cheers and happiness. Yes, everyone then was still under the impression that “next year we’ll celebrate back home in Jerusalem.” However, there was no talk, or any instruction, in our home of the religious significance of Christmas.
Nonetheless, my tangible religious evolution and experiences began upon our arrival to Cairo when I was enrolled at a German nun’s school and made to hold out my hands while the nun’s wooden ruler rapped me on my knuckles as I was being told that the left hand is directed by Satan and that I should, therefore, write with my right hand which was guided by the Angels! After going home and crying for a number of days, during which my parents didn’t quite believe that I was being hit and attributed it to adjustment issues, the upheaval of uprooting from Jerusalem and being in a new environment, my father finally found out that it wasn’t my imagination, whereupon he took me to see a doctor. (Did he really believe that I had a curable condition?) The good doctor told him not to attempt correcting my left handedness because that was directly related to the way my brain functioned. I was petrified of nuns for years after that! Since then, I have heard of many people in my generation who had similar experiences at parochial schools.
As a result, I was moved to Manor House School which was run by a British woman. A few weeks after the school term began, Miss Bullen, our Assistant Principal, came into the classroom and asked all the Christian girls to raise their hands. I had no idea what Christian was! So, I looked around and none of the girls with raised hands were my friends. She then asked the Muslim girls to line up as they were going to Koran class. All my friends lined up, and so, indeed, did I! (I am sure that Miss Bullen called my father to tell him that I was participating in Koran class, at which, knowing my father, he would have told her to let me be!) The Sheikh taught us the “Fatiha” – which is somewhat equivalent to “Our Father” – and we were supposed to recite that by heart during the next class. When called upon to do so, my classmates faltered and hesitated. When it was my turn, I recited it perfectly! The Sheikh then shouted out to the class: This Copt knows how to recite your prayers better than you? For shame! Oh, I thought! So I am a Copt! (All Christians in Egypt were called Copts, which is an Egyptian sect of Christianity) A few days later, as I was at the birthday party of one of my friends, I was taken aside by some of the girls and told that, since I knew the Fatiha so well, I might as well become Muslim. How do I do that, I asked? Just say: ashadu an la illah illa Allah wa Mohammad Rasool Allah (I swear that there is only one God and that Mohammad is his Prophet) three times and you’re done! And thus, at the age of seven, I became Muslim!
In 1952, my parents moved to Amman, Jordan. We lived in a two story building. On the first floor lived our Catholic neighbors Elie, Salma and their daughter, Ellen, who would walk down to the neighborhood church on Sundays dressed in their finest, with hats, gloves, Catechisms and Rosaries in tow. It looked so nice! Why didn’t my parents do that, I thought? That was when I decided to become Catholic! So I walked over to the Church one afternoon, knelt at the Confessional and expressed my desire to the Priest who welcomed me into the Church, gave me a Catechism (which I still have) and a Rosary and told me: Jesus loves you now, my child. I was in seventh heaven! (Many years later when the words resounded in my head, I asked myself why Jesus loved me when I became Catholic, and why hadn’t he loved me before then?)
So there you have it! I was a Muslim Coptic Catholic little girl! Ah! Religion!
A few years later, we moved again, this time to Beirut where I was sent to a secular, nationalistic school. Religion did not figure anywhere in my very busy teenage life during those years. After graduating and getting married in my husband’s Melkite Church, and with the arrival of my children, I simply followed the traditional route: the three of them were baptized, the girls did their Holy Communion and we went to Church occasionally – definitely on Christmas, Palm Sunday and Easter.
Then, in 1975, the Lebanese Civil War broke out. It quickly turned from demands by the Muslim population to have as equitable a share in the running of the country as their Christian compatriots, to a bloody, vile sectarian war. My traditional, non-questioning religious identification up to that point was quickly overtaken by the blind fanaticism and inhumanity of the wicked events in which churches and mosques, despicable priests and hateful imams were stoking the fires of sectarianism and were as culpable in the horrid escalation of events as the corrupt political leaders. Seeing the fighters (criminals, really) wearing their big Christian crosses, or the Korans around their necks and murdering, sniping, looting, burning and terrifying innocent citizens was blood-curdling! My antipathy for all things religious went to an all-time high!
In London, I delivered my fourth child and wanted to baptize him so he would be like his siblings. Nevertheless, I was agonizing and wrestling with that decision and with what I knew was my own hypocrisy! However, I hauled myself over to the Catholic Church in the neighborhood where we were living so as to make the arrangements. The priest was sympathetic to our war status and after the niceties asked: Do you have a godmother chosen for your son? Yes, I said, she is my best friend. She’s Catholic, of course? No, Father, she is Muslim. Oh, no, no! She can’t be a Godmother. But Father, I argued, would you rather an impious Catholic rather than a good Muslim woman? If she is that good, he responded, why doesn’t she become Catholic? I will not share herewith the foul obscene words I was uttering in my mind! However, I just wanted to get this passage over with for my son’s sake and for all the in-laws and my mother who had insisted that he be baptized. I kept my mouth shut!
Then, we immigrated to the US. My sister-in-law and I decided that the children should receive some religious instruction, so we enrolled them in Sunday school. I went to pick them up on their first Sunday and found them finishing up a song with the refrain: Shalom! Shalom! I hit the roof (the revolting Israeli involvement in the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camps with which I was very familiar, had just occurred, and that memory was still very painfully etched in my mind and remains so) and asked the Reverend why the children were singing Jewish songs, and that if I wanted them to learn Hebrew I would have sent them to synagogue not to Christian church! Noticing my very obvious accent, he told me: This is how we do things in this country! Really, I thought? That was, of course, the end of their religious education! We’re done, I thought, and so, too, was my relationship with organized religion!
I guess what I am trying to say is that each of us arrives to their religious beliefs in our own way. Most people simply follow the religion they were born into. Some choose other sects or religions where to practice their faith. At the end of the day, whatever our beliefs are, whatever our religion is, whatever the experiences that have made us who we are, and whatever the evolutionary and maturity process that got us to where we are today it is our moral ethic that defines us and, whether that is based on our religion, our philosophy or any other values, it is what can, and should, give us a common purpose for being respectful and good to each other, to our children and to our world.
Nowadays, and despite my aversion to organized religion, I find that Jesus the Nazarene is a man with whom I strongly identify, perhaps because he was a rebel? No matter what the reason, Christmastime makes me relive his life, his birth, his death, his story and his message. It is one that, despite the hypocrisy and politics of organized religion, resonates profoundly in my life and emotions.
Having said all that, and whatever our beliefs, I feel that we can all sing White Christmas together and enjoy celebrating the story of the most famous and influential character on our planet.
Have a Very Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah Everybody!