My most magical memory of a Christmas is of the 1947-48 season. For some reason, two powerful images from that specific season are etched in my memory. I was seven years old then and we were living as Palestinians in the coastal city of Haifa!
My family–father, mother, and three brothers, two older and one younger than myself–lived sandwiched on the second floor of a sturdy white etched-stone building between my paternal grandparents upstairs and stores below. Our apartment had two balconies with iron-wrought work encasing them. The view from these balconies was a composition to be studied, with the old part of the city sloping ever so slightly in front of us, giving way to the active port, with its small vessels and large cargo ships doing business on our shoreline. Then, of course, further yonder we could see from these balconies the on-stretching mesmerizing historic blue sea!
In my first memory, my mother was sitting on the tile-floor sorting out Christmas ornaments beside a tall pine tree. My father had gathered his children around the kitchen table–in a kitchen not too brightly lit. Our father, a teacher by inclination, was instructing us in the collaborative project of making lanterns from oranges.
Minutes before, he had called out, “Nadia! Jalaal! Maaher! Come over here!” Following the trail of his voice, the three of us materialized from our different whereabouts. “Come on, help me out, we’re going to be making lanterns out of these oranges, and we’ll take them with us to Midnight Mass. Maaher, go ask your mother where the string is. And come back quickly!”
As I said, the kitchen was somewhat dim; a solitary light bulb was dangling from the ceiling. We stood there with our heads at different levels to the edge of the table–a table whose surface was covered with spoons, short tiny candles, a pair of scissors, a small knife and of course, a number of the biggest, finest, most plumb oranges that could be had.
After inspecting the size and shape of each of the oranges, father picked out the best three, after which he carefully sliced off their tops. Handing each one of us a sliced-off orange, he directed us to start hollowing them out with a spoon and to place the pulp in a bowl for later consumption.
After the oranges were carefully hollowed, designs of stars and crescent moons were drawn and cut out diligently with a knife. With the handle strings and candles in place a match was struck and the lanterns began to glow. The dangling light bulb was switched off and mother joined us, with all of our faces beaming in the haloed magical light!
Within a few minutes, we were dressed in our best and were pre-ambling down the stone steps beside our house. Walking through passageways and alleyways, we reached our destination and, with our lit lanterns held in our youthful hands, we entered the incense filled church in the company of my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Later it was off to the nativity scene with the orange glow of our lanters ever-present!
The second most magical memory I have is from New Years day. We had gone through a transformation of some sort by that time; yes, within that short time between Christmas and New Year’s, we experienced a feeling of prosperity in our home. Our living quarters were expanded (we were not limited to the two bedroom apartment any longer) and we were able to open the wide doors between my older brothers’ bedroom and the apartment next door. The neighbors who had lived there had finally moved away. They moved back to their home village.
City life was becoming dangerous, bombs exploding, rifles piercing the air, and skirmishes between Jews and Palestinian were becoming a common day occurrence. Ironically, as a result of this horror, for a very short period of time our living space had become larger, with more room to breathe.
So, on the afternoon of New Year’s day, we were all gathered in that newly acquired space. The louvered balcony doors were open and my father was sitting in a rocking chair. I was sitting relaxed in his lap, my head resting on his chest, his hands wrapping me softly. Uncle Elias was sprawled on the floor and my younger uncle Hanna was standing by the balcony door. My father and uncle Elias were listening intently to the soccer game being broadcast on the radio while uncle Hanna’s mind and gaze were somewhere else. He was there in body but not in spirit; he was dreaming of a far away place. My mother, oh yes, my mother was also there, sitting in a chair, her small sewing basket in her lap, darning a sock wrapped around a wooden egg.
Suddenly, a presence was felt. Mother got up and I followed. There at the entranceway was our old neighbor, the ‘Hajjy’. She had come to visit. She had something in her hand and offered it to my mother. They put it in an oval, silver dish and placed it on the buffet near the kitchen. “Yes, dear neighbor,” the ‘Hajjy’ said to my mother, “my chicken laid this egg this afternoon.” Commenting on the extraordinary large size she stated, “no, it’s not a goose egg, it was laid by one of my hens. I said to my son Ramzi, there are no better people to give it to than you. So enjoy it!”
My brothers cradled the egg and passed it from hand to hand. Family members oohed and aaahed at the sight of the outstanding egg. Eventually things quieted down and I found myself all alone standing by the wonderful white creation. It seemed to have been calling me, so I reached for it and yes, and I dropped it there on the floor. After an uncomfortable silence, I waited for the consequences of my actions. Instead, the family joined me in my silence, they were all amazed for that egg had three yolks! Three yolks!