In 1963, some 50 years ago, my husband Michael and I were living in Beirut, where he was doing his research for his PhD. His Palestinian family lived in Jordan, and like many, we wished to go home for the holidays. A friend of mine once asked me how I could call Jordan home. To me, home is not a locale per se but a place where love and family abide.
As the holiday season approaches, many dream of spending Christmas in Bethlehem. I too looked forward to it.
Mike and I went to Ramallah to Mike’s brother’s home for Christmas Eve. About 10 p.m. we started our pilgrimage to Bethlehem with Hannah, Mike’s brother, and a driver. I, expecting a scene from a Christmas card, recalled the hymn—
“0 Little Town of Bethlehem,
How still we see the lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by.
We in the West have a hard time getting beyond our biblical mind-set when it comes to the Holy Land.
We arrived in the square before the Church of the Nativity to see pushing crowds, religious bric-a-brac sellers, and food venders. The ever-lasting light was definitely coming from commercial interests, from bulbs lighting vendors’ stands and floodlights brightening the square.
At first we were told there was no room in the church — that at least sounded relevant. One of the guards, seeing I was upset, allowed Mike and me in the church, while Hannah and the driver went to sleep in the car.
Mass was extremely crowded, with most people practically standing on each other. The “moving part” of this service was the dodging of someone’s elbow or getting one’s foot from under someone else’s. In fact, I felt so deprived of my idea of the Christmas sacred experience with its serenity and blessedness that the next morning when we got to Amman, the first thing I did was go to Mass.
After Midnight Mass, we returned to Hannah’s to spend one of the coldest nights that I have ever endured. Mike and I were in narrow, single beds, each having a wool blanket and sheep skins. Hannah’s house, like most in the region, was built to keep out the heat. I am a restless sleeper, and every time I moved, the skins fell to the floor. All night it was a game of falling hides and no sleep.
Shortly after Christmas, Pope Paul VI made his historic first trip to the Holy Land, then under Jordan. He flew into Amman, from there to journey to Jerusalem by car. Mike’s Anglican family, knowing I was Catholic, arranged for Mike and me to be at the airport as part of the papal reception.
At 5 a.m., we left our warm beds at Mike’s parents’ home to once again brave the elements. It was so cold that when the pope’s plane landed and the pope descended down the red carpet, the pigeons to be released for such an occasion were frozen dead. However, this did not stop the man in charge. He took the pigeons out and threw them up in the air; when they plopped to the ground, he picked them up and repeated this action.
Michael was given a press pass and from his freezing bleacher perch, he took 72 pictures of the pope, the king and the Muslim and Christian religious leaders in the welcoming committee. I was inside with the nuns, black birds all atwitter.
What did I learn from this most unusual experience? I learned that Christmas means much more than decorations (In Jordan with its limited greenery, Mike’s family did get some cut off branches, stuck them in a pot and added lights so that I could have a Christmas tree (not their tradition).
I learned that Christmas means more than passed-down ritual and tradition. (Hannah had gone to such effort to see that I got to Bethlehem, but I found my real spiritual experiences in quiet moments as we drove through the desert and in the little church in Amman.)
Christmas means more than special plans (Fareed, Mike’s brother-in-law, made great effort for us to go to the airport for the pope’s arrival).
The true meaning of Christmas was in the love of Mike (He minded the cold more than I; the pope meant nothing to him) and the love of his family with all the efforts they made to make me happy.
I found Christmas in the desire of everyone, from family, to church guard, to the driver, to the bird thrower, to make everything seem wonderful.
Christmas is giving, not presents (we hadn’t presents that year) but thoughtfulness; Christmas is love and sharing.
Christmas is not only the appreciation of the first Christmas, Jesus’ birth, but a recognition of the Divine spark that burns in everyone, shown by the little things that others do for us, or try to do for us, even if they are not perfect.
Penelope A. Suleiman lives at 427 Wickham Rd.