As a Christian child growing up in a predominantly Moslem country, feeling the spirit of Christmas in Alexandria, Egypt was an experience full of richness that I was not aware of at the time.
Like many children in the Western world, I was mesmerized by the coming of Christmas. Lights and a potted casuarina tree decked my parents' home, as did the lentil, barley, and bean seeds we planted on cotton rolls, so that the green shoots would be symbolic of growth in the new year. Though the streets remained bare of ornaments, hands in Coptic kitchens peeled and ground dates, kneaded pastry for "kaahk" cookies, and prepared the festive syrup "sharbat."
The Santa Claus legend (Père Noel, a relic of Napoleon's French influence) was challenged by my Moslem classmates. Yet, filled with anticipation, I clung to the belief that he would come. I was lucky; in this land of sea, Nile and desert landscapes, he still found a way!
After church, my mother served the traditional "fatta," a delicious, garlic and coriander-spiced rice and meat dish served with fried bread. Then came the "eish el saraya" (palace bread) dessert, a flat, grainy bread soaked in rich syrup and served with gobs of laboriously prepared fresh cream to temper the sweetness. Sometimes we'd top it off with "konafa" (shredded wheat and nuts bathed in syrup), or baklava (phillo dough, nuts, and syrup). Of course, calories were insignificant!
At school, my classmates wondered why we Christians had so many dates in which to celebrate the same holiday—a question whose answer lies in the very beginnings of this ancient church which follows the Coptic, as opposed to the Gregorian calendar, and whose roots date back to the inception of Christianity itself when Saint Mark the apostle first came to Egypt sometime between AD 41 and AD 44.
When the time came for Moslem festivals, it was my turn to be consumed with curiosity. The Ramadan fast that marks the birth of Islam spurred the inevitable question, "Are you fasting?" I would note the pride with which fasting children responded and felt like I was the one with my nose pressed to the windowpane, looking in from the outside on a celebration in which I had no part.
I didn't know it, yet already I was learning one of life's most important lessons: understanding and tolerance of another faith and religion. And from that understanding came friendship with classmates of different beliefs.
Time marched on, and I literally moved with it. Having spent most of my emotional and educational life straddling Eastern and Western cultures, almost immediately after my marriage I made a cultural and physical leap to the foot of the Sierras in the American West. I experienced a White Christmas firsthand and discovered a new magic to the celebration in an ambiance where I didn't feel the need to tiptoe around others' beliefs; yet I intensely missed some of those same differences which had played a vital role in my upbringing.
In Paradise, California, with the lighting of our town's Christmas tree came an open spirituality. Mentally, I selected a light on the town tree to commemorate each of my faraway loved ones, and was often moved to tears by the nostalgia evoked by familiar carols sung lustily in an unfamiliar tongue (my childhood language was French, yet another paradox in an Arabic-dominated country). Each time I drove by the tree, I saluted my family.
After my children were born, we created a new tradition of annual visits to our church's nativity scene, where community members, sheep, and lambs posed in candlelight, even under the pouring rain, to re-enact the more than 2000-year-old event. We'd "ooh" and "aah" at the neighborhood decorations before heading home to hot chocolate, home-baked cookies, and the warm exchange of gifts with neighbors.
I experienced bewilderment at the "land of plenty"—invariably coming home with the "wrong" kind of bread or cereal -I'd never seen such a variety of foods- and shock at the commercialization of Christmas. We tried to keep ours simple, decorating the manger and our hand-picked tree with homemade ornaments. Yet, when I recall our critical scrutiny of the lush spruce and douglas firs, I'd find it hard to fathom after all those years of going to the downtown florist in far-away Alexandria to select a potted tree.