I spoke to my parents on the phone yesterday. We decided that my Mom will come and spend some time with us over the Christmas holidays. That conversation took me back in time to my childhood Christmases in Byblos, when my Mom would transform the holiday time into a magical experience, lovingly decorating the tree, with christmas scents filling our home. My aunt, a devout Greek Orthodox Christian who had visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem several times, would tell us the Christmas stories, about the animals keeping Jesus warm while we decorated the nativity. We would put real straw in the berth of baby Jesus, carefully fix the shining star over the stable while we handled the baby statue with such care and reverence, screaming if he accidentally dropped from our clumsy hands. Fairuz would be singing Lebanese Christmas carols with her crystal voice on the radio, and we would sing along, muddling the words as kids do. We would grill chestnuts, burning our fingers while we attempted to remove the skins to get at the warm fragrant flesh. My mom would prepare the Christmas dinner while my dad would take us to see the decorated festive streets of Beirut. Lights shone everywhere, “Laylet Eid” the Lebanese version of “jingle bells” heard on every street corner, Santa Claus ringing his bell and offering candy in front of large stores in the capital opening late into the night. We would shriek in the car unable to contain our excitement upon seeing Santa in the flesh. Then we would get confused when we saw another Santa in front of another store, and we would cast puzzled looks at my Dad, whose way of dealing with us kids was by pretending he didn’t understand our bewilderment. My Dad was and still is a man of a few words, very soft spoken. We quickly learnt that it was useless to try and get him to explain complicated concepts including why there were so many Santas in Beirut. He would just point and distract us, “look, more lights, look, Christmas tree!”.
My aunt would insist that we all go to Christmas mass after dinner, despite it being a catholic maronite service (as a Greek Orthodox, she was naturally allergic to Catholics and maronites, but had to compromise as Byblos is a catholic town with no orthodox churches). We mostly fell asleep on the church pews, as a result of having too much food and thrills. The excitement of the next morning was indescribable when the distance between the bedroom and the living room seemed like a stretch of eternity when we opened our eyes and realized that it was morning. It was Christmas morning, and we were still in bed, we thought with horror. Running like our lives depended on it we abruptly stopped in front of the tree upon seeing a pile of presents with my parents conspiratorially smiling at their success in keeping Christmas magic alive for yet another year.
Then the comparing began. I would be much more interested in what my sister got to have any energy left to enjoy my own presents.
I remember getting a cylindrical clear plastic toy one Christmas, with a marble in the middle that sort of drops between one layer of the cylinder to the other, making a deep clicking noise. It was a simple toy that I cannot forget, the sound it made still reverberates in my imagination every time Christmas is mentioned. Despite getting a crawling talking doll, cars (I loved cars as a child), construction set (I loved those too ), it was the plastic cylinder that stuck in my mind, mainly because of the epic wars that resulted because of it. The moment I held it and played with it, loving the sound it made, it became the holy grail for my sister. We spent the better part of the ensuing year fighting over the toy, hiding it from each other, using it as a weapon, until my Mom just took it away. I never forgot it. It was like losing a puppy. I think I’ll call my mom and ask her to find me that toy if she could and bring it with her this year. I would take a picture with it, and send that picture to my sister in Shanghai with a note saying, nyahaha. Let the battle begin.