Christmas in Beirut


Every year I try to convince my sister not to celebrate Christmas. I tell her we’re not Christians. She says I’m wrapping the children’s presents wrong. I tell her the kids will tear the paper anyway. She tells me to please be quiet and keep working.

My family has always had a love/hate relationship with Christmas. My sisters love it, I hate it.

My family is Druze, not Christian. We were raised in a tradition that is not supposed to have silly manifestations of faith. The only feast we celebrate is Adha, Abraham’s sacrifice. We don’t have a food orgy at the end of Ramadan, we don’t flagellate ourselves during Ashura, and for Christmas, we certainly don’t shower our children in gold, frankincense, and Dolce & Gabbana.

My father never wanted to celebrate Christmas. My mother did. She still does. Every year she decorates her tree with only red ornaments. As she puts up the tree, she tells me that she feels terribly guilty now that my father has passed away since he disliked Christmas so much.

Though she’s a Lebanese Druze from the mountain, just like my father, she was born in Jerusalem where my grandparents were living. Her mother placed my mother and her sisters in a Catholic school. She didn’t want her daughters to grow up to be Lebanese Druze from the mountain, but wanted them to become sophisticated and debonair. When the nuns asked my grandmother if her family was Christian, she said, “Mais, bien sûr.”

My father may have loved his French wine, his single-malt scotch; he may have adored his four-ply cashmere sweater, his Lanvin tie; he may have enjoyed his foray to Paris, and the memorable dinner at a small bistro in Geneva. But in his heart of hearts, he really and truly wanted to remain a Lebanese Druze from the mountain, just like his father.

For the children, my mother would say. She put up a Christmas tree, with presents underneath for the children, every year for the forty-five years they were together. The compromise was that the tree would be simple and classy, not ostentatious, not decadent, only red ornaments. My father would curse when we sang Christmas carols. He would grumble as he helped open the presents he bought us.

My family now puts up more than one Christmas tree. My two sisters each decorate a tree—for the children, of course—and my mother has one, for when the grandchildren come to visit. Every year.

My mother’s tree has remained simple, but not my sister’s. My sister always wants to have the best tree in all of Beirut. Sometime in late November, my sister’s home is transformed into a holiday monster. She has a collection of at least two-dozen Santa Claus dolls. She has a life-size red reindeer. She puts lights on not just the tree, but on every plant in the apartment—including the cacti. She covers every object in sight with a bowed red ribbon so that it looks like a present, and she buys a present for every child she’s ever met.

She drives me crazy. I tell her we’re not Christians. She says Christmas has nothing to do with Christianity. I tell her Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. She asks, “Who?”

She doesn’t stop at Christmas. Of course, she cooks lamb for Adha. She hides painted eggs for the children on Easter. She has an orgiastic dinner for all her friends at the end of Ramadan. This year, she cooked a giant turkey for American Thanksgiving—except she did it on a Friday. She couldn’t have a big dinner in the middle of the week, she said. It’s impractical.

I told her she’s not American. She told me to stop being a Lebanese peasant from the mountain.

Every year, I complain and try to convince her not to celebrate Christmas. She tells me I am wrapping the children’s presents all wrong. I tell her that it’s pointless since the kids will tear through the paper anyway. She tells me to please be quiet and keep working.

I grumble and mumble—sometimes to myself, sometimes loudly—whenever I come across a delightfully decorated tree.

Every year, I try to be at each of my sisters’ homes when the children open their presents. I grumble and curse as the children squeal in delight.

Every year, as I gingerly try to remove my father’s noose from around my neck, it is with my own hands that I nearly strangle myself.

Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novels Koolaids, I, the Divine, The Hakawati, An Unnecessary Woman, the story collection, The Perv, and most recently, The Angel of History. He divides his time between San Francisco and Beirut. More from this author →