As each season rolls around, I have flashbacks of Christmases as a child. But, don’t we all? This particular memory of mine is of Bethlehem.
It must have been in the early 60s because I was young enough to still ride on my dad’s shoulders and we were still able to drive straight south from Beirut to Bethlehem before the 1967 Arab Israeli War when Israel annexed even more territory from Palestine. We had caravaned south with another family to spend Christmas in Bethlehem.
I have two distinct memories: cold inside and cold outside!
The old-style Arab home in which we stayed was temporarily vacated by the resident family. The cloudless sky belied the fact that it was still cold, even with the sun’s rays warming the thick, yellowed, stone, outside walls of the house. The inside was another story!
As all eight children in our respective families tumbled out of their black Chevrolet and light blue Puegot station wagons, we ran into the cavernous “dar,” or main room which was grounded by a central, massive, black-iron, flat-topped stove used for heating and cooking. Our footsteps clattered and echoed on the ancient, well-worn, slick, stone tiled floors. We begged our parents to hurry up and light a fire because it felt like the inside of an icebox in that high-ceilinged, wide-open room!
That night, we Graham sisters slept two-by-two in iron beds piled high with thick wool blankets and our stockinged toes were warmed not only by each other, but by hot water bottles tucked in under the covers. Thank goodness for the additional warmth of sisters!
The next morning, as we drank hot milk tea and ate “manaeesh” (pita slathered with olive oil and zaatar, a thyme spice mixture), gathered around the stove, daddy read the Christmas story from Luke 2: 8-20 and told us the day’s agenda: visit the Church of the Nativity and the Baptist Bookstore. I still have my mother-of-pearl bible I bought that day. Mother told us what to expect at the church. She warned us that we could kneel at the altar where the gold nativity star lay inlaid in the ornate mother-of-pearl, wood, and gold mosaic floor, but we were not to kiss the star because of germs! Isn’t it funny what we remember? The picture above is of me with my oldest sister, Catherine, standing in front of this altar.
The second “cold” memory is of me standing for an outdoor service in Shepherd’s Field on Christmas Eve. In anticipation of the cold night air, we had dressed in many layers. My arms stuck out from my body as stiff as a scarecrow’s stuffed appendages!
My memories of that night are as bright as the brilliant stars winking at me on that oh, so cold clear night. At first, the stars were all I could see from my wedged-in stance among the crowds of coat muffled worshippers. I tugged on daddy’s leather gloved hand with my own mittened fingers, pleading, “I can’t see!”
He promptly swung me up onto his shoulders and I held on to his winter felt hat, my clamped legs warmed by his wool neck scarf. Wow! What a sight! A sea of people, many of whom held candles and flashlights, were singing hymns in different languages from all over the world along with the Arabic hymns lead by a choir up front. I’ll never forget the sound of all those different languages singing together. It sounded like what I imagine Pentacost would’ve been, but this was Christmas Eve!
In that moment, I forgot about my child-like complaining of the cold, and imagined the shepherds of old peering out of the surrounding caves in the hillside looking over the very field in which we stood. They must have been startled and amazed that the heavenly choir of angels chose to speak to them, a group of humble, lowly shepherds.
Are you humbly in awe of the messages you are personally receiving this Christmas season?
Oh, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years, are met in thee tonight.