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Christmas in the Fifties with a Palestinian Christian Refugee Family

Written by Dr. Bernard Sabella*
December 12, 2012

I recall Christmas in the early fifties of the last century when my family was a refugee from the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. We were all living in one room; but crowded as it were with some ten members of the extended family, we were managing to live in community so to speak without electricity and other essentials that we cannot do without nowadays.

Most impressive in those years, was Santa’s visit on the eve of Christmas. We were allowed to stay up till midnight to wish our parents, aunts and other members of the family community a Merry Christmas. But our anticipation was always focused on Christmas morning when we would wake up and find the colorfully wrapped candies at the base of our bed. With the candies, we would find a personal gift; usually a sweater or a pajama or a toy and some precious small change which made us feel like big spenders. Especially so since our family’s precarious finances, coming out of a war, denied us access to such small change throughout the year.

As children we earnestly believed in the existence of Santa Claus. I was a firm believer of his existence and I remember telling my younger siblings how it was indeed Santa who placed the colorful candy wrappings, the gifts and the small change on our beds. Later on in my childhood I discovered that Santa was no other than Aunt Leonie who took extra care at preparing the wrappings and offered the small change from her own limited purse. Christmas for Aunt Leonie was a show of love and compassion that emphasized the family, the togetherness and the joy of celebrating the birth of the Divine Babe.

The environment of Christmas then made us feel that we were entitled to being recognized as individuals, as persons in our own right and reinforced in us the feeling of belonging to the family and to the larger community. It inspired us to delve into ourselves and to recognize our potential. It was an invitation to be open to the world, even if that world was no bigger than the old city of Jerusalem with its 20,000 or so inhabitants of Muslim and Christian Palestinians.

My father, God bless his soul, never missed the midnight mass in Bethlehem. He would leave to the Church of the Nativity after our family’s Christmas Eve dinner at around 7:30 in the evening. One year, he insisted on my accompanying him. I was awestruck by the multitude of pilgrims and their different languages as they gathered awaiting midnight mass. For my father, the visit to Bethlehem was one of adoration to the newly born Divine Babe and I still remember him genuflecting himself by the nativity grotto and later on reciting his rosary at the Saint Catherine’s parish church where the midnight mass was set to start.  

As I reflect on my childhood experience of Christmas in the fifties of the last century, I am struck by how much my parents’ generation taught us about ourselves and about how our world should be like by their way of celebrating and experiencing Christmas. This was a generation that was traumatized by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and by the fact that they were refugees with challenges of life and its difficult circumstances that would make one easily lose hope and perhaps faith. But they never lost either hope or faith and they kept insisting that life should go on and that Christmas, in spite of our material poverty and our refugee status, should be celebrated with joy. Perhaps most reflective of this spirit of my parents and their generation was the Christmas tree that adorned the same corner of the family room year after year. It was always my mother who worked hard to set up the tree and guide us on how to decorate it. That was fun and we were always so proud of our Christmas tree and the nativity set and paraphernalia that were placed at the base of the tree.

We have learned as children that Christmas is a season of joy. Later on, the childish joy associated with Christmas; its carols and Santa’s visit developed into a joy of faith and hope. Irrespective of how difficult life can be, even for refugees who have just experienced a devastating war, Christmas was a reminder that the human spirit is far stronger than the vicissitudes of life. As we celebrate Christmas in 2012, with the world continuing to experience conflict and difficulties of the economic order, among other woes, and as our country continues to suffer occupation and the unfulfilled aspirations of freedom with a Palestinian state of our own, we should be reminded of the joy and faith of my parents’ generation as they struggled to reshape their lives and their world. Christmas was a driving power in their struggle then as it should be to all of us as we celebrate yet another Christmas this year. The message of Christmas “Peace to the World” cannot but start with peace to the family and to oneself irrespective of the hurdles and anguish caused by continuing conflict and its many woeful adverse manifestations.   

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

*Dr. Sabella is Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches' Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees, a partner of Global Ministries.  He lives and works in Jerusalem.



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