Monday, November 28, 2005

Christmases in Amman

One thing's for certain this Christmas: we'll definitely be having a respectable Christmas tree. For the past 5 or 6 years, Christmas season in Jordan began for me when I figured out when the Ministry of Agriculture had their $15 Christmas trees ready for people to come and pick up. I should probably use the term "Christmas trees" pretty lightly, because these guys were the most scrawny, pathethic-looking trees you could imagine. All bunched up together against the concrete wall out in back of the Department of Forestry, they nearly looked passable--I always thought, "Oh wow! They've got some big ones this year!" It was only when the men hanging around started separating them that I realized they were about one-tenth of the size I had anticipated them to be.

In fact, they were so pathetic looking that I always felt an urge to rescue them to some extent. Who needed a huge Ohio-style tree like we always had growing up, anyway? It wasn't like we were going to find too many perfectly sized evergreens in Jordan's generally arid landscape. Besides, we only had about 15 cheapy ornaments that we'd bought at the stationery store to decorate with.

I'd usually drive down to Salt and pick up the tree, popping it in the trunk and muddying everything. I remember those days as always being rainy. Once I got home, I'd drape an old curtain around the tin container it was planted in and we'd usually get around to decorating it in the evening. Samer's family would sometimes come to drink tea and watch us, and usually a friend or two would drop by to help out. Not that it took very long, with our handful of ornaments.

When I first moved to Amman, Christmases were a melancholy time for me. For almost every previous year of my life (except the two years I lived in Cameroon), I had spent Christmas with my family in Ohio. Not only was it strange to be living in a country where Christmas celebrations aren't super apparent, it was also odd those first few years trying to get my Muslim husband to "get" what Christmas was all about. Sure, he'd always buy me a few gifts and would make a big effort to make me feel like I wasn't a gajillion miles away from home, but it just wasn't quite the same. The gifts were often a stretch, too; one year, one of my presents from Samer was a tube of anti-wrinkle cream. A little anti-climactic, as you might imagine.

But as the years went by, Christmas started to be more fun. Samer and I would always head over to Sweifieyeh for a few evenings to buy gifts, and most nights we were there shabab dressed up as Santa would be hanging out of the windows of passing cars and ringing bells. Kind of funny, but endearing all the same. And every year I would notice that more and more shops were decorated for Christmas. As an American, for better or worse, that elusive Christmas "spirit" has nearly everything to do with shopping--and the way shops are all decked out and playing music, etc. Jordanian establishments have definitely begun figuring out that participating in the Christmas hoopla translates into more cash, and that's probably why many shopping places have acquired a decidedly Christmas vibe.

Christmases in Jordan also began to develop into a bit of a pattern for me. Throughout the year, my mother-in-law and I would frequently go to classical music concerts, but during the Christmas season, our schedule always got a lot busier. There were tons of activities to attend, and we'd always try to get to as much as possible. One we never missed was the annual Christmas choral concert, which over the years has become quite a spectacle. The larger family also came over for dinner on Christmas evening, and that was always a fun time to be together.

As an expatriate living in Jordan, I often felt like I had two families--the family I married into and love dearly and then a whole extended family of friends, many of them expatriates, I'd become extraordinarily close to by virtue of being so far away from my American friends and family. Over the years, I developed a whole other set of traditions with these friends--many of whom were in search of imitating the Christmases all of us used to celebrate back home.

Every Christmas Eve we'd have our expat friends over for dinner and a passing party. The passing party was the sort in which we drew numbers and could steal the gift we liked best from someone else. My friend Kurt was a master at stealing his own gifts back--he was never a big fan of what the rest of us brought. Over the years, we got pretty good at thwarting him and making him end up with the cheesiest gift of the lot.

And then, every Christmas morning, after we opened our own gifts, Geeva, our maid and my dear friend, would come over with her little girl and we'd exchange gifts and hang out. The other great thing about Geeva coming by was that she'd help me out with cleaning up the piles of plates from the previous late night with friends and help me get things in tip-top condition for when the family would come over later on in the evening. I'd always have pumpkin pies cooking somewhere and enough food for 85 people piled up in the kitchen.

It's funny, but somehow those Christmases in Amman have become the definition of Christmas for me. Before, the Christmas of my imagination came complete with snow-covered rolling hills and was accompanied by the goofy Johnny Mathis album my mom and dad played non-stop beginning a few days after Thanksgiving clear on up to New Year's. Now, though, I can hardly imagine Christmas without those ridiculous Santas hanging out of their cars or hearing "Let it Snow" sung in cutely accented English at the Christmas concert with my mother-in-law. More than anything, though, I'm going to greatly miss all of our family and friends who will be doing their own thing this time around. I'm just not quite so sure I'm going to miss those scrawny little Christmas trees.


At 2:00 AM, Blogger Dave said...

Hardees decided to get into the spirit of things by taping up a couple strings of tinsel/garland to the lights hanging from the ceiling. Yipee.

At 11:57 AM, Blogger jameed said...

It is interesting to see the differences in perception of x-mas between someone who moved form the US to Jordan and someone, yours truly, who moved from Jordan to the US.

Growing up, it was about dinner and maybe small gifts followed in the next couple of days by the obligatory round of wishing everyone and their dogs a happy x-mas (where of course you spend your time kissing elderly people on the cheeks, drinking coffee and apologizing for not being able to stuff one more piece of chocolate in your mouth).

You described much of the x-mas spirit that I have noticed in the US correctly: shopping. It never ceases to amaze me how much people tend to spend on x-mas (or any other festivity) decoration. The number that I heard recently was $4b on Halloween this year for example. On the other hand, a Jordanian got introduced to the activities of gift exchanges and developed ways to always end up with the crappiest gift of all. My theory that since in the US “bigger is better” left me with a set of 20 Tupperware bowls one time.

As for gifts to the wife, [sigh]. Anything that can be used in the kitchen means “more work for me”, beauty products translate into “do you mean I am not pretty enough with them?” and clothes, well I can barely shop for myself when it comes to clothes. No, I am exaggerating here. I and my wife no longer formally exchange gifts but one of us would insist on paying for something the other person bought for himself or herself around x-mas time. Funny that we both end up paying with our joint credit card!

At 12:56 PM, Blogger Ajnabeeyeh said...

That's funny, Jameed. In fact, I wrote this post a few weeks ago for the Arab Center newsletter--before all the Christmas stuff all over town started up. Now that I'm here in the US this Christmas, it's all feeling a little too over the top and annoying. Contrived, or something. . .

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Firas said...

Nice topic u used to get them from Salt?My mom always insisted on having a natural tree.So we usually ended up in a great mess :D

In Jordan I don't celebrate X-mas.
I celebrate CHRISTmas!
It's about the mass in church at Christmas eve.
It's about the nativity scene
It's when my dad and mom used to roam the streets giving candy and little gifts to any bypassing kid!
It's the time when I was forced to wear Santa and go around houses giving away gifts :D

Amanda,should I be politically correct like that homeless guy and say "Happy Commercialism?" or Happy Holidays?

Well, Merry CHRISTmas!

At 10:57 AM, Blogger Linda said...

Amanda, I just love this post. I love how you detailed your experience with christmas in Jordan and your in laws. it is so great to see that and puts a big smile on my face.

Being a Jordanian born and raised in Los Angeles, I have come to realize that while America celebrates the holidays in a very corporate commercialized way, unfortunately, my family and many of my relatives have bought into that way of celebrating the holidays. I think I will post more about my thoughts on this on my blog.


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