Keeping Christmas Real

Tajik Madonna and Child
Tajik Madonna and Child
Every now and then around this time of year I post one of my photographs of a woman and her child to remind myself of the holy family’s humanity. (Click here for one of the Bangladeshi madonnas).

The emphasis on divinity and religous iconography in the two-thousand or so years since the holy family walked the earth has a tendency to eclipse the reality of who they were. They were poor. For a period of time during Jesus’s childhood they were wanderers or fugitives. At other times, they were a solid, salt-of-the-earth, working-class family.

And yet many believe that Jesus’s words and deeds made him special. That he was an ordinary man with an extraordinary message. He said he was the son of God. Over the years this was taken to mean that he himself was divine. I wonder sometimes if it is possible that he was trying to say that we were all sons and daughters of God. That is to mean that he was not divine, but that we are all special or divine and capable of great love, great deeds and great sacrifice. Then I wonder if we would recognize such a prophet if we encountered him today.

The photo I chose this year is of a woman and her child who I met along the Tashkorgan highway earlier in the year. She is poor and a wanderer who sells amber and garnet jewelery and artifacts to tourists and travelers. For Tajik women, a fair complexion is most desired, but the trader’s dark skin tells us that she spends a lot of time outside under the high-altitude sun. She is young and her beauty has not yet been marred by her harsh lifestyle. Her teeth are stained by high-mineral content ground water, a badge she will wear for the rest of her life. Her lovely, chubby baby is clothed in unmatched remnants, much like her mother, but she is happy and playing with a large chunk of milky yellow amber on a string.

So, I guess the point is that the madonna and her child is not a gold-encased painting in an alcove or on an altar or mantle in a private home, they are on earth all around us. The paintings are just representations, not of one particular mother and child pair but of every single one. Try to remember that the next time you encounter a poor, wandering family. They might have something important to say. (Words and photo of Tajik Madonna and Child by Laura Kelley).

A Feast for the First Christmas

At this time of year when cuisine blogs are awash with recipes for cookies and roast beast for the Christmas feast, I thought it would be a nice idea to create a notional menu for what the first Christmas feast might actually be like. In truth, that concept was brough to me by a writer from Bon Appetit magazine who wrote a great short piece based on my input. This post will look at the First-Christmas menu in more depth and discuss the reasons behind some of the choices.  It will also examine some of the issues that influence our ideas regarding the birth of Jesus and hopefully dispel some myths about the event.

To start, we have to get Jesus’s birthdate right, which was probably during the  Feast of Sukkot in the first few years BCE.  The feast is celebrated today according to the lunar calendar, but it usually falls in the early autumn.  In 2012, it was celebrated from 30 September to 7 October, so Jesus was a Libra not a Capricorn.  The temperature at this time of the year in Bethlehem was between 70 and 80 degrees Farenheit in the day and down into the 50s and 60s at night – so it was a comfortable time of year.  Bethlehem was a fertile area at a good altitude and with more rainfall than in much of the rest of the country, so food would be plentiful.

September-October is a time for harvesting grapes, figs, pomegranates and olives in Israel, so these would have figured heavily into the meal, regardless of the social class of the family.  Which brings me to another point, we know that Joseph and Mary were poor, because Joseph brought two doves to the temple to sacrifice after the birth of Jesus instead of the more traditional  lamb.  By extension, his family would probably have been poor or working class, so there would be no royal feast for the Nazarene – at least not at home.  Also, keep in mind that Joseph and Mary were Jews and as such they probably would have observed Kosher dietary laws.  This would have been particularly true for Mary because she was with child.


There is a lot of information in the bible about the individual foods that people ate, but not a lot of information about how they put ingredients together.  With no recipe “tablets” to work from,  I have prepared a notional menu for a feast that is based on these lists of ingredients, other historical knowledge, and a lot of creativity on my part. It is rooted in Sephardic tradition and in that respect breaks us out of the European cultural mindset that dominates most Christmas celebrations in the west.

Mixed-grain Bread
–  Olive oil with za’atar or other herbs for dipping
–  Plate of fresh herbs
Lentil salad with cracked or sprouted grains
Plates of Dates and Figs
Mixed local olives, salted, cured and brine marinated
Wine served throughout the meal

Main Courses
Roasted Fish with Herbs and Honey
Roasted Pigeon or Doves with Herbs and Pomegranate Syrup
– Fish sauce garum to use as a table condiment
– Small bowl of salt
– Citron or Rose-petal Jam to eat with meat
Roasted Barley or Millet Pilaf

Sweet Endings
Honey-Sweetened Herbal Tea or Raisin Wine
Date and Pistachio sweets
Dried apricots and raisins


Mixed Grain Sourdough
Mixed Grain Sourdough

Examining some of the menu choices in more detail, I chose a mixed-grain bread as written in Ezekiel 4:5: “Take thou also unto thee wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and fitches and put them in one vessel, and make thee bread thereof.”  Fitches are black onion seeds (nigella sativa, or kalonji from Indian cuisine). It wouldn’t be necessary to use all of these ingredients at once, but the idea of mixed grain and spices (onion seeds) is important.  Bread could have been flat or sourdough.  For a celebratory feast in an extended family home, I would choose sourdough as pictured here.

Za’atar is a local herb (Origanum syriacum) that is mixed with other ingredients – notably sumac, and sesame or pine nuts and a litany of other choices. This would have been mixed in olive oil and used to flavor bread as a dip.  Plates of herbs, like dill or fennel, might have also offered flavor to the bread and would have been served as fresh as possible.

Mixed Local Olives
Mixed Local Olives

Lentils or fava were very common source of food and might be eaten with sprouted or cracked wheat or barley for flavor and texture.  Cumin and coriander would be likely flavorings as would leek or onion.

Plates of dates and figs would be set out and would be fresh from the harvest.  Olives might be from the current year’s harvest if enough time had elapsed between picked and curing or fermenting and brining, otherwise they would have been from last year’s crop.

Grape or mixed fruit wine would be served throughout the meal.  It would have the resiny overtones of a modern retsina and would be sweetened with figs in the amphorae or herbs like rosemary.  It might be diluted with water, especially for the women.

Roasted Pigeon or Dove
Roasted Pigeon or Dove

Looking at the main courses, we find the option of Roasted Fish with Herbs and Honey that is based on Luke 24:41-43, in which Jesus as a grown man eats fish with honey.  The fish would probably be a mullet, or sea cod (cheap and easy to catch as surface-water fish), but it could also be a grouper, sea bass or sea
bream.  Depending on the fish, thyme and/or dill with cilantro could be used as herbs. If it was a large fish it could be cooked on a spit or open fire.  Smaller fish or fish slices or filets would be cooked in an oven if the family had one or if a communal oven was available for use.

After fish and eggs, pigeon or dove was the most commonly eaten meat in ancient Israel.  Lamb was for the wealthier or for holidays and cow/oxen/bull was for the feast of the wealthy.  I can see pigeons spitted and covered with herbs like mint and cilantro or spices like cinnamon and then roasted and basted with pomegranate syrup as a delicious entrée.

Citron Jam
Citron Jam

Since Augustus was still on the throne in Rome, the use of garum in Roman Palestine would be likely.  The archaeological record tells us that Jews had special garum made by the Phonecians using fish allowed by Kosher dietary laws.  This could be a table condiment and mixed with herbs (such as oregano) or mixed with water, honey or wine.  This would, of course have enhanced the flavor of food as regular readers of this blog well know.

Since it is the Feast of Sukkot, citrons would be available.  A common way to eat them is to make jam out of them and use that to flavor meat. Another option is rose-petal jam.

The meat would be served with (or on) a pilaf of roasted barley or millet with herbs and spices.  Of the two grains, millet would be fresher at this time of year as it was just harvested in August.

Barley Pilaf
Barley Pilaf

For a sweet ending to the meal, people in the ancient Levant drank all manner of sweet herbal teas and could have enjoyed some after the main meal. Alternatively, a sweet, raisin-based wine could be served to clear the palate and end the meal.  Tea would be sweetened with local honey made by imported Anatolian bees that were fed on citrus blossoms and wild desert flowers.

Any manner of sweets made from pounded and rolled dates covered with pistachios could be served or simply a plate of dried apricots and raisins.  A sweet spread of nuts and dates like modern charoset could have been enjoyed with bread or all by themselves.

Dried Apricots and Dates
Dried Apricots and Dates

A few more cultural points in closing: Bethlehem would have been bustling with lots of out-of-towners (like Joseph and Mary) because of the census. Forget what you have learned about,” no room at the inn”, there weren’t many inns (or even any) and Mary would not have stayed in one as a woman. The only women in “inns” were working there. They would have stayed with Joseph’s relatives and would have been greeted and treated as extended family. Because other visitors also sought the family’s hospitality at the time of the census, there was probably no room for Mary and Joseph in the family’s “guest room”.

Mary probably gave birth in a cellar off of a central courtyard that was used to store supplies for the family and prized animals in the evening or in times of bad weather. A private and isolated area was chosen because of the physical mess of childbirth and because of Jewish cultural practices separating men and women at this time. She was probably attended by a midwife or older women from the family.

If Jesus’s birth was celebrated at all, it would have been in with wine and a bit of noisiness by the men of the family as was custom after the birth of a child. If there was a celebratory meal, there were no tables or chairs, a floor cloth or mat (or both) would be laid down and communal dishes with food placed upon it. Guests would sit or recline around the “table” and converse as they ate and drank. There were no individual plates; food went from communal bowls or platters – to hand – to mouth.

It’s also possible that Mary would not have taken part in a feast because women are considered “unclean” for one week after the birth of a boy and for two weeks after the birth of a girl. She might have had food brought to her by birth attendants or female family members, at least in the hours or days after the birth.

I hope this post brings some fresh ideas to your Christmas table, I’ve got some other ideas up my sleeve for the kinds of foods the three kings might have brought to an epiphanal feast to share as well. Remember, however you chose to celebrate, enjoy the time with famiy and friends and reflect on why you come together at this time.

(Words by Laura Kelley. The major points of this post first appeared in an article on Bon Appetit online entitled, What Would Jesus Eat. Photo of Sourdough Bread by Djauregui@Dreamstime; Photo of Mixed Olives by N. Larina@Dreamstime; Photo of Roasted Pigeon by Zhiqian-Li@Dreamstime; Photo of Citron Jam by Reika7@dreamstime; Photo of Barley Pilaf by Richard-Semik@Dreamstime; and Photo of Dried Apricots and Dates by M.

Ye Ga’nna Ba-al (Merry Ethiopian Christmas)

“It comes without ribbons. It comes without tags. It comes without packages, boxes or bags. . .”

Christianity arrived in North Africa in the first or second century, coming first to Alexandria – the great melting pot of culture and scholarship. From there, it spread across North Africa and down the coastal cities to the east until it reached Ethiopia and was adopted as the official state religion in the fourth century – not long after Constantine declared it the religion of the Roman Empire in 312 CE.

Rock Church at Lalibela, Ethiopia

Most of the spread of the faith to sub-Saharan Africa outside of the coasts came after European explorers and traders began to frequent African shores in the 15th and 16th centuries. Today, more than 350 million of the world’s Christians reside in Africa.

Although there are many, unique and beautiful ways of celebrating Christmas in Africa, an examination of Christmas in Ethiopia allows us a window back in time to the early Christian practices that were prevalent when traders on the maritime Silk Road routes came to Ethiopian and Somalian harbors to trade goods from around the world.

Rock Church at Lalibela – Closeup

Some of the most enduring symbols of Ethiopian Christianity are its rock churches. Carved by hand into ancient lava domes, these churches – like the one picture here at Lalibela – are beautiful examples of the power of the faith in Ethiopia. The workmanship, still evident in the chisel marks on the walls, and the time it took to create these architectural masterworks is evidence of deeply held belief by the people who commissioned the work and by the men and women who forged it with their hands and minds. Although many early Christian churches and monastic cells are fashioned out of caves as in Cappadocia, the Ethiopian churches are greater works because they blend period architectural style with rock hard rock. Was the carving of the churches as statement about Peter? Was the placement of them in the ground in many cases a statement of the faith springing forth from the earth itself? Most of these buildings are still in use today and regularly visited by pilgrims and other faithful for services – especially on holidays.

Ethiopian Christmas is celebrated in accordance with orthodox Christian belief, one of the largest denomination of Oriental Orthodox Christians with some 40-45 million members. For Orthodox Christians, the holiday begins on January 6th – when people fast and begin to gather and sing songs. The weather throughout the country is warm at this time of year dipping into the 40’s to the 60s at night and because of this, people often gather outdoors to chant throughout the night. To accompany the chants, people play drums and shake sistra (plural of sistrum) as seen in this video from Ethiopia’s Orthodox Tewahedo* Church.

Ethiopian Priest at Lalibela – Closeup

The next morning just before dawn, people change into white or light colored clothes. Traditionally a robe-like white garment called a shamma is worn, but in modern urban settings, white western-style dress is often seen. Then people join processions to churches for services at dawn to celebrate the birth of Christ. After services, people feast, sing, dance and men and boys play an ancient game called gena that is a form of field hockey.

Twelve days after Ga’nna, Ethiopians celebrate the baptism of Christ in a festival called Timkat that includes more services and more feasting – for several days. Notably absent from these Orthodox celebrations are the Nordic and Germanic hallmarks of Western Christmases – christmas trees, lights, gifts and characterizations of (the Turkish) Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus or his “bad cop” Black Peter. No reindeer either. Just a simpler, less commercial glimpse back into Orthodox practices from centuries past – but with uniquely Ethiopian cultural highlights.

To Ethiopian Christians everywhere and to Orthodox Christians of any sect – A very Merry Christmas.

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Lalibela Rock Church and Ethiopian Priest at Lalibela by Eddiie Van Ryckeghem at Dreamstime; Photo of Lalibela Church Closeup by Alan Wellings at Dreamstime.)

* An interesting linguistic similartiy is found between the Amharic word Tewahado (which refers to the unified nature of Christ of the Orthodox Christian sects) and the Arabic word Tawhid which refers to the worship of one God.

Christmas in India

Elephant Christmas Tree

Trees adorned with lights, candles and lamps in the window, strings of paper lanterns cut into intricate patterns – all around the world, Christmas is one of the many human holidays that celebrates the return of light to the world. For Christians this light is believed to be God’s light as witnessed in the birth of Jesus. In pre-Islamic Egypt, Osiris died and was reborn as an infant on December 21st, and in ancient Rome, the Emperor Aurelian combined the rebirth of the many god-men worshipped within his empire into a single holiday called the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun which fell on December 25th. The Jews have Hanukkah – the Festival of Lights – at more or less the same time of the year, and the Zoroastrians have Shab-e Yaldaa. * Underlying all of these more modern beliefs, however, are millennia-old pagan celebrations of the winter solstice as the rekindling of daylight that grows ever brighter until the summer sun-setting solstice half a year away.

Along the Silk Road, the largest number of Christians in any one country is in predominantly Hindu India. Estimates vary widely, but there are between 35,000,000 to 66,000,000 Christians in India, with those of Catholic faith comprising slightly less than half of the total number. That’s five to ten times as many Christians than live in Christian Georgia and Armenia combined! In a country of almost 1 billion Hindus and 132 million Muslims, Christians are still a minority in India, but in some urban areas like Mumbai and Kerala, there are large Christian communities who have a beautiful and distinct ways of celebrating the holiday that blend Christian religious practice and iconography with Indian material culture.

Christmas Stars to Heaven

Celebrations often begin on Christmas Eve and continue through the New Year. Families gather on Christmas Eve for processions through the streets to Churches decorated with the bold crimson foliage of Poinsettias in bloom for a Midnight Mass to begin the holiday season. People worship as choirs sing religious and secular traditional songs. In some parishes, fireworks are lit after services and people dance, feast and exchange presents well into the longest night of the year.Other familiar traditions get a uniquely Indian twist on the subcontinent and Nativity scenes are displayed in Christian homes and banana and mango trees are decorated with lights and oil lamps are placed on roofs and walls to declare the return of the light as is also done for India’s Diwali festival. Most startling and magical are the strings of star-shaped paper lanterns that are hung from rooftop to rooftop and in front of Christian-owned shops and restaurants ostensibly to light the way of all men. Caroling takes place in Christian communities and in most urban melting-pots as crowds of people gather to walk through the streets and make a joyous noise to celebrate their faith.

Families prepare for weeks or sometimes months for the coming of Christmas and homes are cleaned, repaired and whitewashed. That ever-earlier harbinger of the Christmas season in the West – shopping – also takes place in India as people shop for new clothes to wear to festivities and buy presents for loved ones. For women and girls the holiday also includes preparing special foods – particularly desserts and cakes to share with holiday visitors and cooking can begin long in advance of the holiday. Students return home for the holidays and adults living away from their place of birth often return at this time to visit their parents.

Christmas Day itself is a national holiday in India and the day off from work and official duties often prompts people of other faiths to have large family dinners at this time as well. So, even if they make up a small portion of India’s population, Christians have freedom to worship and celebrate this season that is both known and in some secular ways shared by their brothers and sisters of other creeds.

A Tray of Indian Sweets

Even if this Christmas season began in Mumbai with the violence of brother against brother, in a spirit of peace, let us all continue in tolerance and love for people of all faiths. Despite the lack of a moral compass by the men (and women) who may have carried out such hateful deeds, they are not representative of any creed or culture other than their own marginalized, misguided groups. Every faithful or thoughtful person – regardless of their religion or beliefs – should be appalled by the violence of the Mumbai bombings and should try to find a way in their own lives to take a small but conscious step to counter hate and let the light of the season shine just a bit brighter than it might have before their action. Christian or not, the solstice season is about the return of the sun and victory of light over darkness, and when we act in tolerance and in love we all become part of ensuring that victory. Merry Christmas India, Merry Christmas World. (Words by Laura Kelley, Elephant Christmas Tree © Eti Swinford |” , Christmas Stars to Heaven © Nikhil Gangavane | and Tray of Indian Sweets © Sunil Lal |

*The Islamic festival of lights is Ramadan and Hindu India’s holiday is Diwali. Both fall according to a lunar calendar and are not associated with solstice celebrations.