“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. This rang true one Christmas when I came back from my University in Beirut to spend the holidays with my parents in the North of Lebanon. My parents had a lady working for them that helped my Mom around the house and who brought it fresh milk in the morning from the nearby farms. Fatima and her family came from the far North of the country, and lived in our area so she can work cleaning houses, and her husband worked as a day laborer doing odd jobs so that they could put their three kids through school. They were a Moslem family that moved into our region -predominantly Greek Orthodox- and lived in humble quarters in an abandoned house that belonged to one of my parents’ neighbors. Fatima had a constant smile on her face, a sharp contrast to Ali, her husband, who never smiled, and usually nodded when meeting someone on the street, hardly uttering a word.
Christmas is a big deal where I come from. Streets are elaborately decorated. People position their Christmas trees in windows visible from the street, which makes a stroll around town into a trip down a blinking multi-colored kaleidoscope. Every year since I can remember, a tall seemingly malnourished version of Santa roamed around the town streets in the local toy store owner’s peugeot delivering gifts pre-ordered and paid for by local families. I had noticed one year earlier that when Santa brought gifts to my younger siblings, Fatima and Ali’s kids stood there in the doorway watching shyly, taking the scene in with wide-eyed wonder. It was then that I promised myself that I was going to make their Christmas special the following year. I spoke to my Mom about my plan when I arrived home for my Christmas vacation, after having crossed green lines and checkpoints manned by various fighting factions that were tearing the little country apart. My mom, always the dreamer, readily agreed. We both went to the Peugeot owner’s toy store, carefully chose gifts for Fatima’s three kids, and gave the address details to the starving Santa look-alike.
It was Christmas Eve. We could not contain our anticipation of how happy the kids next door were going to feel. We felt so good about our gesture, it was like having a Christmas within Christmas. The moment came. Lanky Santa wobbled in his tall thin frame and ill-fitted disguise to the door of my parents’ home. My youngest sister got scared of him, as usual, and disregarded the gifts he brought – toys and wrapping paper painstakingly chosen by my Mom a month earlier. I couldn’t wait for scary Santa to leave and go make the kids next door happy. He swayed down the sloping road to Fatima and Ali’s home, as if on stilts, and knocked on their door. I was standing with my Mom and sister, noses stuck to the cold glass panes of our bay window overlooking their house, clouding our view with our condensing breath, then hastily rubbing it away with our sleeves. I wanted to see the look on the kids’ faces when it was finally their turn to receive their gifts. I waited for a few minutes. My mom was wondering what was happening. My Dad kept repeating “I told you it was a bad idea”. We wished for him to spare us his lecture as we strained to hear what was going on between anorexic Santa and the family down the street. I then opened the large window and stepped on the balcony into the freezing cold to find out what was going on.
I heard the screams of the kids first, cries of pain, coupled with the sound of loud smacks. The door suddenly flung open, poor startled Santa was running up the street, gifts being hurled at him from the doorway. He didn’t stop to pick them up. He bundled into the car and sped away. The screams lasted for what sounded like hours, I stood there with my mom and sister, joined for a few minutes by my lecturing dad who shook his head then returned to the fireplace mumbling “I told you so”. I couldn’t accept or comprehend what was happening. My dad explained it as an in-acceptance of Christian traditions by a Moslem family. A conflict of religions. I just couldn’t believe it. I was right not to.
I didn’t really comprehend why Ali did this to his children until a few years later when I read a wonderful book called “The Education of Little Tree” by Forrest Carter about a Native American boy. It was only then, on reading the passage that described how the father of a little villager was beating the child so hard for accepting a gift of moccasins made by the Native American grandmother of Little Tree that it finally dawned on me what happened that cold night years earlier. The way the author described the scene and the ensuing explanation by Little Tree’s grandfather took me back to that sad Christmas Eve when I inadvertently caused pain to a family despite having had the best intentions at the time. Little Tree’s grandpa explained that the father of the little child beat her when she accepted the gift as it was his way of not getting her used to gifts he could never afford to give her. Ali’s reaction was the only one he could afford. He couldn’t get his kids used to a tradition he had no means to sustain. I, in my foolishness, missed the fact that giving his children the opportunity to experience a tradition of gifts, expensive ones that he and Fatima could never afford, I was setting the kids up for disappointment every year that followed.
Youth and idealism can sometimes make a person an impulsive know-it-all . Sometimes the best-meant gestures can backfire. That Christmas in war-time Lebanon my gesture did. I still make it a point to go greet the family of Ali every chance I get when I visit my parents. Although we never brought up what happened that night, I still feel like I owe them an explanation. Maybe it is an obsessive impulse to explain my intentions. But in the end I guess it was the thought – or lack of – that counted that night.