Guest Letter from Alana: An Orthodox Christmas, from the Holy Land to Sin City

So you may have noted that I mentioned that we had a “couple” of Christmas letters coming, and then only posted one. That’s because good things come to those who wait! 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit late, but I did not want to miss the opportunity to post this letter from my friend Alana.

I don’t remember exactly how I met Alana; probably through an online Muslim-Jewish dialogue group… which is funny, because she’s Christian! 😉 But there tends to be a lot of overlap between Muslim-Jewish dialogue and Palestinian-Israeli dialogue, so Palestinian Christians like her tend to get lumped in with the Muslims, I guess. We both got such a kick out of discovering that I live a mere five-minute drive from Beit Sahour, the Palestinian village where her father, paternal grandfather, and maternal grandparents were born!

Alana is currently studying international affairs, has written for various publications, and as you’ve probably gathered, is involved in peace and dialogue efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. I was especially excited when she offered to write something about Christmas because she has family in Bethlehem, where the Christmas story takes place! She grew up elsewhere, however, and she’ll tell you about that in a minute. 😉

But before I give her the floor, I just want to say that I am so grateful to her and her family for letting me share this little slice of their lives on my blog. Especially in light of recent events, I think it is really important for members of both our peoples to listen to each other’s stories. Alana doesn’t get into her family’s story here from a political perspective, but it was very important to me to discuss it with her and hear her parents’ feelings about it.

Anyway! Here’s Alana, and a painfully pared down selection of the bajillion lovely pictures she sent me 😉 :

Dear Josep,

Hi! My name is Alana and I’m a twenty-year-old university student. I would like to tell you about my religious identity and how it relates to my national identity and contradicts my local identity. I would say that I was quite religious most of my life. I think I lost a bit of my spirituality along the way as I became older, but as I explore my identity, I realize I want to have a better relationship with God.

Here is an anecdote to assist me in explaining who I am:

“Baba, I wish I was born in Beit Sahour! Or Bethlehem!” A little naïve girl version of myself lamented this while I was reflecting on relatives in town who happened to be born there.

“Why?” my dad asked, implying that American citizenship by birth is way more valuable.

“Jesus was born there!”

Even my dad who swears by his spirituality disagrees with the notion of his daughter taking her first breaths in the Holy Land. It’s ideal, but my father left for a reason. He wanted a change.

Alana's dad with her (right) and her sister
Alana’s dad with her (left) and her sister

Where did my father, paternal grandmother, and uncles uproot to? Well, I’ll give you a hint, it’s referred to as “Sin City” where what happens there, inevitably stays there.

Yes, I was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A.

Alana's very first Christmas in Las Vegas
Alana’s very first Christmas

Almost my entire family is from a small village called Beit Sahour in the West Bank. It’s half an hour away from Bethlehem, the town that my paternal grandmother’s family is from. It also happens to be the famed Biblical village where once upon a time, Jesus Christ was born. No big deal. I just happen to find roots in the same area where Jesus Christ was born.

*nuns proceed to fangirl*

The reason that this might be a tad interesting is that my family is also Orthodox Christian. We are Christians who come from the Holy Land, and for at least over a hundred years or so, the place where Jesus Christ came into existence.

I think this is a huge part of why I, as a devout child, regretted not having the chance to be born near where my Savior was born. It seemed like an honor at the time, and celebrating His birth is definitely one of my favorite traditions every year.

My family is Orthodox Christian. My family in the U.S. are members of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. It’s the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in the United States. Antioch is a city in modern Turkey. It was a part of what was formerly known as Syria (different from the modern nation-state of Syria).

So how does one celebrate Christmas in Sin City? Well, for my family it’s not too different from the Christmas you’ve heard. Ok, I guess the praying in Arabic at church is kind of a huge difference. Oh and I cannot forget the Christmas songs in Arabic! My mother has an entire album of songs that she plays in the car on the way to church on Sundays in December or in the house. They were always soothing to listen to, and to be honest, I like them better than Christmas songs in English sometimes.

One thing I want to point out before I explain how my family celebrates Christmas is that Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th. We have a different calendar than Catholics/Protestants. Here, in the United States though, we, along with those at our church and other Orthodox Christians, celebrate Christmas on December 25th. I think this was mostly done for assimilation purposes, but I’m not sure. (My family back home celebrate it on January 7th.) With that said, I do like that we in the west at least celebrate Christmas at the same time as western Christians.

It’s also important to note that Jesus Christ is said to have been born in the spring, at an uncertain date of course. During the rule of the Roman Empire, Christians were only allowed to celebrate the birth of Christ if it aligned with the pagan holiday of the Winter Solstice. Thus, this the reason why Christians now celebrate Christmas in the winter. The reason for the season technically also has a pagan layer with it, along with traditions like putting up a tree.

Now for an explanation of how my family celebrates the holiday!

My childhood was much more lively around Christmas time, for a plethora of reasons, both internal and external. One of the most profound ways that my family and I began the month of December was participating and sometimes hosting a Christmas party with our close friends. Every year, a different family (there are four of us) would take turns hosting our annual party.

Alana and her sister at the party, age 12 or so
Alana (right) and her sister at the party, age 12 or so.

The adults played games and drank, while the children played and ate cookies and the like. The patriarch of the family that hosted the party that specific year would dress up as Santa Claus and distribute gifts to the children.

alana christmas 12

These gifts were purchased by their respective parents prior to the occasion. It was a tradition that we always upheld. Our annual Christmas parties were always such an enjoyable time and I miss them dearly. The memories will last a lifetime.

Leading up to the Christmas Day, the Sunday before Christmas at my church is quite special, and not just theologically. When I was younger, the children, teens, and young adults would perform a play reenacting the birth of Jesus Christ annually. It became a tradition for our parish. The youth would participate and the adults would watch. Taking place in our church, the person playing Mary would be sitting on the steps in front of the altar, carrying a baby doll to represent baby Jesus. Whoever plays Joseph sits by her while the “three wise men” bring their gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Shepherds that were called upon by an angel to visit Jesus filter in after the wise men. Lastly, angels, mostly young children, descend onto the scene. They walk in between the pews singing various hymns. To finish off the play, they sit down in front of Mary and Joseph. The play ends with Mary, Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds, and angels gazing at their Savior. As a child, I was always cast as an angel. I longed for the day I would have a better role. That day would not come for at least several years though, especially since the tradition of the play was broken for a while.

alana christmas 13
Clearly the cutest angel in the church

Around the time I joined my church’s choir, when I was only ten years old, my priest decided we need a change when it came to our yearly play. He was getting tired of the old routine and wanted to liven up the Sunday prior to the day we celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth. So, he decided that the youth of the church should sing Christmas songs for the parish. Our choir conductor agreed to gathering some of the children and teenaged members of the church to participate. We always managed to convince enough people to sing their hearts out for the special performance after our pre-Christmas service. My sister, godsister, and I always took it quite seriously though, since we all love to sing and we happened to be members of the parish choir in the first place. So, we always rocked the show, especially since the three of us started a tradition of choreographing a song-dance routine that we would perform after all of the general songs were sung. Everyone looked forward to us performing, it was the highlight of my day.

Alana, her sister, and godsister at church
Alana (center), her sister (left), and godsister at church

Another tradition that I found special was the integration of Arabic Christmas songs into the program, even though it was just one. At the start of the program, the children and teenagers would walk into the church ringing bells in their hands. While they did this, they would chant “Laylit eid” or the Arabic version of Jingle Bells! They definitely did this after singing it in English, or course. I love that song so much and to this day, it is still one of my favorite Christmas songs. After our Christmas choir program, a member of the parish, usually male would dress up as Santa Claus, knock on the church doors, and proclaim the phrase “Ho, ho, ho.” The doors would then be opened for this Santa Clause who would carry a red bag filled with small and usually identical gifts for the children. It was a nice way to end the program every year.

This tradition went on and thrived until one year when my priest decided to bring the old play back. We were all surprised, but we went with the flow. That year was 2013 and I was eighteen years old. Finally, I was at an age where I could play a part besides an “angel.” Guess what? I was not only promoted, but I was given the most important role of all. I played the Virgin Mary. Oh my, I was so ecstatic. Finally, what a huge upgrade it was for me to play such an important part, and I definitely made sure to do the beloved Virgin Mary justice. That had to be the most important performance of the play that I ever participated in, and it went very well indeed.

Alana as the Virgin Mary
Alana as the Virgin Mary!

I have so many memories from those Sundays, including up until this past year. But the most important event prior to Christmas day is definitely Christmas Eve mass. This is when we really dress up and take pictures for Christmas. Everyone attends this service, especially those “Easter and Christmas” Christians (those who only come to church for Easter and Christmas services). Anyway, it’s a big deal, but alas, we do not get into the truly fun part until Christmas morning.

Christmas morning. For those on the outside who only see what it’s like through the lens of the media, i.e. TV’s and movies, it may seem a bit overdone. They practically memorize the stereotypical setting and custom and sigh thinking, “Why is this important?” I understand, but for me, it ceased to seeming like a repetitive thing and I hope the Christmas morning spark is something I will always experience. As a child, my mom, sister, and I would bake cookies that we would put out for Santa. We would also put out a glass of milk for that jolly fellow. After we would come home from church, my sister and I would soon fall asleep, giddy for the next morning. Soon enough, the sun came up. My sister and I would pop up from our beds and scurry to the living room. There they were, those magnificent gifts we were waiting for, under our beautiful twinkling Christmas tree. Believe me, that wasn’t it, once my dad started working the graveyard shift at his job, we had to wait, until around noon time. The wait was the best part though, but of course we wanted to finally see what we received from Santa Claus and our parents. Opening presents is a ritual. First, the stockings. My mother(Santa) would fill our stockings with chocolates, candy, tiny knickknacks, you name it! I personally loved the tiny gifts inside. Growing up, my sister and I were granted some pretty spectacular gifts.

Alana and her sister. So cute!!!
Alana and her sister with their gifts. So cute!!!

Honestly, this is great and all, but that’s not what this is about. The fact that my parents spent their time and money to make our sisters happy, even in a material sense, showed us how much they truly loved us. Growing up in the Holy Land and the Middle East respectively, my parents did not have much. They both grew up mostly dirt poor. My mother always explained to me that she had few toys, and I cannot tell you how many precious Barbie dolls I had in my vast toy collection. The toys, clothes, shoes, electronics, etc. My parents bought it all and they sacrificed so much for indescribable Christmas mornings, and overall, our livelihood. They gave us so much; I do not think I will ever be able to truly repay them back. It would be a pity to take all of it for granted, but you do not ponder the extent of your parent’s love, i.e. the hard work it takes when you are a mere child. You just receive it with no questions asked. Writing this blog post makes me realize how lucky I am, that I have not only been able to experience a microcosm of Christmases in Bethlehem, but I have experienced Christmases that my parents could have only dreamt of indulging in as children themselves. They did not have what my sister and I have. They had almost nothing, but for some reason, seeing the smiles on our faces when we rip open that wrapping paper is all that they need to be happy. I may have begun to gift give to my parents and sister in the past few years as a young adult myself, but my parents always shrug off the gifts. The only gifts they have, the only presents they need, are the beaming faces that my sister and I produce on that lovely holiday of ours. Since they love us so much, that is the only Christmas wish they have ever had for the past twenty years and I am beyond thankful for that.

alana christmas 5
Alana’s mom
Alana's family at Christmas this year
The whole beautiful family at Christmas this year

Celebrating Jesus Christ’s birthday in a town of “sin” may seem strange or impossible, but as my story outlines, it’s not only possible, it’s extraordinary. I may not be able to visit the Church of the Nativity every year around Christmas time, or visit the huge Christmas tree that is put up in Manger Square. I may not even be able to see most of my family, but celebrating Christmas in my hometown of Las Vegas has always proven to be wonderful, and I would not have it any other way in my eyes. I’ve only celebrated Christmas or “Eid milad” in Las Vegas, Nevada, and to be blunt, I think I would prefer to take part in Christmas festivities in the city of sin for the rest of my life. It’s familiar and it’s home. It’s unique and creative and that’s what I love about it. I would not change that for the world.

Merry (late) Christmas!

With love,
Alana B.

Would you like to share with us about your family’s holiday traditions? Or about your family’s culture or religion in general? Write us a guest letter of your own!

3 thoughts on “Guest Letter from Alana: An Orthodox Christmas, from the Holy Land to Sin City

  1. I am really sorry that it took so long for me to reply to your post. This is a lovely explanation on how a Christian Orthodox would spend this season.

    Alana, thanks for sharing this personal story of yours, that is full of family and love.

    I just hope you had a great Christmas and wishing you the best for 2016 (the rest of it) :p

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.