On the evening of January 5, across the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, Christians participate in the re-enactment of the Nativity Story, and break bread around a simple, mostly vegetarian meal. All over the world, in churches that belong to the Eastern Christian denomination, the sweet fragrance of incense mixes with the voices of the faithful, the chants of the choirs with the tolling of the bells, the murmur of prayer with rustle of the cymbals and censers.
So, too, in places far away from the locus of the Christian story, here in Boston, for instance, the Orthodox churches are the sites of illumination and chant, prayer and good wishes for the new year. And while the rest of the world has gone back to life as usual and the Christmas trees lie lifeless on the pavement waiting for the pickup truck, those congregations belonging to the Eastern churches will go at it one more time, on January 6, in celebration of Christmas and Theophany.
But, wait, that’s not the whole story. For there is a third Christmas celebration–yes, there is–on January 19. It’s the Christmas of the Jerusalem Armenians. 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. And though I have heard the explanation a dozen times, I am still at a loss to parse the reasons for this third, very late Christmas except that it had something to do with the Jerusalem calendar.
For someone like me, who grew up Christian in the Holy Land more by subscription than strict belief, the week or two following the new year have particular significance. My family celebrated all three Christmases though we were a very secular lot living with and among Muslims. In those days, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Middle East of the childhood and adolescence 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. (We did not praise our Lord from the top of every microphone, the way so many Christians on these American shores conduct themselves). In the Holy Land of those times, Christian celebrations of Christmas were for us and the Muslims, at least at our post-colonial school which had been run for many years by English missionaries; the Muslims feasts of Al-Adha and the Eid were occasions for joy because of all the delicacies which would, at the end of the fast, miraculously appear in downtown markets. The recitations of the Q’uran from the minarets were, for us all, the highest form of classical Arabic to which we listened in awe and pleasure. All that is gone now, only a memory which endures.
The first Christmas arrived at 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. (I attended the school from 1956 to 1964). The Christmas Eve celebrations persisted.
On December 24, the whole school would gather in the hall of the main building, a regal colonial structure of limestone exterior surrounded by uecaliptus trees in that beautiful part of the Jordanian capital, Old Amman. The ceremonies would begin at mid-morning when each class would walk into the big hall, and in no time the place 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, and a huge Christmas tree. The ceremony would end with offerings which each class made to the Palestinian refugees. Little by little, the entire stage would be filled with canned and dried foods and sacks of grains. In less than an hour, the entire stage would be transformed into a big warehouse, and the ceremonies would end with the singing of carols. 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 Orthodox Christmas, which was the “real” one for the Eastern Churches. On 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 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.
By the middle of January, you would think that we would be tired of the caroling and the partying and the decorating, but not so. For there was still January 19 and the trip to Jerusalem. We lived in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and the trip to Jerusalem in those days was a mere one hour drive by car. And so the taxi would arrive early in the morning to take us to Jerusalem. We would arrive at mid-day and head straight to the St. James Church, which was built in the 12 century.
Since those days some four decades ago, I have visited the church many times, and each time as I set foot into this hushed space, I am transported to the Christmases of my childhood and adolescence–the chants, the cymbals, the sunlight streaming through the tall windows, the incense. The turn of the sacred, the waves of faith (and its lapse), the visceral beauty of the moment.
The festivities over, the three Christmases completed, the decorations finally put away in boxes, we would return to life, to the new year. A little late, perhaps, we would begin the again, lagging behind the rest of the world perhaps. But, truth be told, only a fool would refuse the possibility of three Christmases if given the choice. Only a fool would shy away from re-enacting one more time the Christian drama, though faith may have lapsed or was never there to begin with.
In my mind’s eye, these 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 Christamses 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. And knowing that I can’t is really not as bad as it sounds though sometimes I feel the absence in the very marrow of my bones : What is gone is really here, in these cold climates, here, in all its majestic presence.