REMEMBERING AND REIMAGINING CHRISTMAS

A solstice / christmas sofrah (table).

For the last few months of 2021 I began a new food design program called Fabrakat, a partnership between the GOETHE institute and Namliyeh.  It’s been a fascinating journey into food, and the myriad systems and ideas that surround our current food ways, while finding new ways to see and / or rethink these systems.  

As part of the program we were asked to create something that represents who we are as a “designer”.  While that word can mean many things, to my understanding, it has come to mean a process that you can use in the service of a creative outcome.  This question got me thinking about storytelling, and the ancestral traditions I have been learning so much about these past few years.  As a Palestinian Christian, the traditions of my people are, to me, way more interesting than the European and Americanized versions of Christmas that were so dominant in my mind growing up in the states.  

To answer the question “who are you as a designer”, I decided to make a sofrah (table) of items that gave deeper meaning, ancestral connection, new perspectives and aliveness to this holiday season. Here is what I included, and why.  

BURBARRA (INTENTIONS)

Burbarra dessert.

In my research on Christmas, one of the first stories I came across is the story of Saint Burbarra.  In English she is known as Saint Barbara, but I prefer to write (and pronounce) her name the way we say it:  Bur-ba-rra.  Burbarras origin story comes from Baalbek in Lebanon from the 3rd century A.D.  Some say she found refuge in a cave in the city of Abboud in Palestine, where there is a shrine to this day in honor of her.  

Growing up in the states, my mother always made a dish called “Burbarra” in December.  This dish was one of the staples of the Christmas season.  My family celebrated this Saint on December 17th, yet I have also heard of it being celebrated on Dec. 4th, and 6th.  As a child, I didn’t understand what it was.  I just remember seeing small glass containers in the fridge, covered with saran wrap, that were decorated with colorful sweets, raisins, nuts, and coconut shreds.  I have a vague memory of hearing the word Burbarra, but I never asked why, and didn’t take much interest in the story behind it.  

The dessert “Burbarra” is a porridge that my family makes with cooked wheat berries, sugar, honey, or date syrup that is decorated with nuts, candy coated chickpeas, shredded coconut, and mixed with eastern spices like ground up anise (yansoon), fennel (shomar), ground up wild sour cherry pits (mahlab), cinnamon, and orange blossom water.  Every family will have their variation on this.  You can read more about Burbarra here.

This story is all about the power of conviction. It is symbolically about going from a time of being very sheltered, to having a new insight that can take your life in a new direction, or reaffirm your current path.  It is about having a conviction so strong that you are willing to follow that path no matter where it might take you.  And it is about the support you can receive while following that path with intention and wisdom.  This porridge is a festive dish often eaten in the colder months for its heartiness, and is sometimes eaten out of a communal bowl.  

SPROUTING GRAINS UNDER THE TREE (SEEDS)

Sprouting barley seeds.

Every year at the beginning of December, my grandmother would take chickpeas, wheat and / or barley grains that are still in their shells, and sprout them under the Christmas tree. This is very much related to the story of Burbarra.  There is something so protective about wheat in her story.  As she runs from her murderous father, the wheat grains sprout up behind her in an effort to protect her.  

Perhaps this is a reference to the nutritious aspect of wheat, and symbolizes the protectiveness the earth offers us. Each christmas season, watching life grow under the christmas tree is a reminder that the seeds we can’t see under the soil (both the ones we planted and didn’t plant) are in a slow process of reawakening.  Therefore affirming the sustenance we need to nourish ourselves through yet another year is on its way.  

The inclusion of Burbarra and these sprouts is not just a nod to ancestral traditions, it is a living reminder to myself to connect back to my own convictions.  To take the time to reflect on the past year.  To do the things I have always wanted to do but have hesitated.  To be intentional about the new seeds I am planting, and to move forward in my life with conviction and boldness.  

MAAMOUL AL EID (CONTEMPLATION)

Maamoul sweets stuffed with dates, pistachio and walnuts.

Maamoul dessert is a traditional sweet that is served on both Muslim and Christian holidays.  It is made with semolina flour, and usually stuffed with dates, walnuts, or pistachios.  In Christian symbolism it has different meanings based on shape and stuffing.   The round date maamoul is likened to the crown of thorns that Jesus wore, symbolizing how something so sweet could come out of something so horrible.   

This also links back to much older stories related to the story of the phoenix (bennu bird of Egyptian mythology) and the date palm, as this fiery bird is said to have made its nest in this tree.  It also connects us to the goddess Ishtar, who was sometimes called Lady of the date clusters, and the infamous story of her descent and return from the underworld.  Her partner Tammuz, who goes with her on a seasonal journey of descent and resurrection, is directly connected to the sprouting of grains under the tree, as he was sometimes referred to as the stalk of wheat itself.  

This is a reminder to me of the part of our living cycle linked to the symbolic death of nature, and the act of going within.  To really take the time to reflect upon where I am and how I got here.  To fully accept all steps in my journey, the beautiful, the painful, the not so pretty.  To also reflect on the journey of the collective.  To see it all with full clarity, love, rage, grief, and whatever other emotions might arise.  

CONNECTIONS TO WINTER SOLSTICE (SOIL)

Winter fruit salad.

The Christmas season is deeply linked to the winter solstice, the longest, and darkest nights of the year.  Coming together with loved ones during this time was a way for my ancestors to celebrate the imminent return of the sun, and find literal and metaphorical warmth together.  A pre Christian solstice celebration that has particularly taken my interest is the celebration of “Shab-e Yalda”, that originates from Iran.  The word “Yalda” comes from Aramaic and means “child”.  The literal translation of “Shab-e Yalda” is “night of child” or metaphorically “night of birth.”  The winter solstice also marks the beginning of the 40 coldest days of winter, in Arabic we call this the “marba’anieh”.  

Pomegranates, and other winter fruits have long been associated with this celebration.  The pomegranate in particular holds rich symbolism across many different cultures and stories.  A single pomegranate can hold between 200 and 1400 seeds.  It is associated with fertility, as well as the cycles of the seasons.  In the Shab-e Yalda celebration, it is a central motif, with the rich red color promising the return of the sun, the fire and passion of life itself. The many seeds inside of the shell are also a reminder of community, of coming together, of holding a living vision for this world, especially on the coldest winter nights.

The candle is a reminder of the warmth of the sun, and the pine cone is a visual reminder of the lush, green earth.  The notebook is to celebrate all the writing I have done this past year, and a bottle of @yansoon.herbs pine oil infusion for all the work I have done for this project.  And of course no celebration would be complete without a cup of Arabic coffee.  This drink was always part of our Christmas celebrations, and was often used by Sufi mystics to help keep them focused during ceremony.  

For the Fabrakat program, we took a trip to Wadi Rum, and that trip was deeply meaningful for me, so I included a rock I picked up while in the desert.  This rock represents collective dreams. Dreams such as reforesting the city, and greening the rooftops.  Dreams of moving beyond tropes like “women’s empowerment” and “uplifting communities” to more grounded hopes of balancing power dynamics between peoples and places.  With this rock I hold these dreams with intention and conviction.   

CLOSING 

Wild saffron (crocus).

With the winter season and the abundance of rain begins the growing season in my homelands.  The first signs of the growing season come with the wild saffron (crocuses) that drink up the rainwater, almost immediately flowering into clusters and individual flowers in fields and farms.   

The Christmas season in my family would officially end on January 6th, when they would celebrate and honor the day that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River.  Ironically to me, this shriveling river that is considered a global holy site, is also a military zone and a border.  As a Palestinian, it is a border meant to keep me outside of part of my homeland, so this site comes with a lot of grief for me.  

With global warming, the rains came late this year, and the threat of severe drought haunts us.  Instead of dreaming of a white Christmas, as snow is not a dominant part of our winters, I dreamt of a wet, rainy Christmas and winter.  With abundant rainfall, nourishment, and prosperity for the land and everyone on it.  With a rain that washes away the borders that colonization has forced upon us, and brings us back into the softness and connections of our hearts, of the land, of our food systems, and our communities.  

Here are a few questions to contemplate.  You can reflect quietly on these questions, write on them, dance, draw, or use whatever method calls to you.  

  1. What blessings are you harvesting from 2021?
  2. What are you letting go of from 2021?  
  3. What is something you want to do but aren’t doing?  
  4. What is stopping you?  
  5. What intentions / seeds are you planting going into 2022? 

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