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Sweet Memories of a Winter Gone

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 11.02.2007:

By Julia Dabdoub

The advent of the winter season used to be a very special event in the ‘good old days.’ I vividly remember the winter season with the changes and events that marked that season, starting from November 25th, St. Catherine’s Day in the Christian calendar. I particularly remember that day in 1936 when I was ten years old. As was customary, our school, which was the boarding school of St. Joseph de l’Apparition, used to take us for mass at St. Catherine’s Church of the Nativity. On that special day, we used to wear the special costume reserved for Sundays and other religious events. It was beautiful: a sailor’s dress in navy blue. The skirt was pleated; the tunic of the same colour had a navy collar and a necktie with a border in white; black shiny shoes with a side button and white stockings that reached up to the knees. There was also a matching beret.

Reaching the Church, our places were reserved on the right, for on the left were already seated the schoolgirls of the other St. Joseph school which was called the Terra Sancta School for Girls under the guidance of Franciscans Fathers. They, too, had beautiful costumes. Both groups looked at each other with a critical eye.

This day marked the beginning of winter. The cold days had started.

Going back home for lunch, we found a big change in the house. My mother had already spread the carpets in all the rooms, a big brazier (the prevalent method of heating at the time) was installed in the middle of the living room and another smaller one in the dining room. It used to be so cosy and warm.

In our bedrooms, the traditional quilts had been put out. They used to be in gold-yellow satin, stuffed with wool or cotton. An upholsterer used to come to the house every year, before the start of the winter season, to undo the covers, fluff the wool or cotton, fill it some more and put a clean cover. The effect was beautiful as the white ironed cotton bed sheets, bordered with lace, were folded over the satin around 40 cm below the matching pillow cases.

The food prepared by my mother also used to follow the season. There were fewer salads and more soups. In Palestine, we eat a lot of stews that are always accompanied by rice cooked with shiirieh (vermicelli) that the women used to prepare themselves. It consisted of a dough made of flour and water. The women spent hours cutting the dough into small pieces weighing around two grams, rolling them between the thumb and index finger and putting them on a tray. Once the tray was full, the noodles were left to dry. The noodles were then sautéed in clarified butter, the rice was added and the whole was covered with water to cook. As for the stews, they were mostly based on lamb meat. Very rarely was beef or veal used. The stew consists of onions, butter, spices, lamb and then whatever vegetable one wants: tomatoes, peas, beans, zucchini, eggplants, potatoes, cauliflower, etc. Sometimes the stews were made with yoghurt-based sauces. A stew is a healthy all-in-one dish. Chicken used to be eaten on special occasions. Back then one had to slaughter the chicken, remove the feathers, clean the inside, and wash it repeatedly with salt and lemon. We only started buying or finding cleaned chicken on the market in the 1950s.

December 4th is devoted to the memory of St. Barbara. That day was marked by the preparation of a dessert called bourbara. It is prepared by washing and boiling wheat after soaking it overnight. When the wheat becomes tender, you mix in aniseed, sugar, fennel seeds, raisins, etc. You pour the mixture into a beautiful serving dish and decorate it with almonds, nuts and pomegranate seeds. You leave the decorated dish on the buffet in the dinning room. We had to pray and sleep early that night. We were told that during the night Santa Barbara would visit the houses that prepared this dish in her memory. She would, with her three fingers, take a mouthful. We used to get up in the morning and find out that she, in fact, had come and we used to see the trace of her fingers. Deep down we knew that our mothers had done it but we never asked them so as not to disappoint them.

December was the most beautiful month of the year, especially when you have the privilege of being born in Bethlehem or living there. In those days, every house had a Christmas tree but it was of secondary importance; the manger or the grotto was more important and representative.

I remember my father, together with my elder sisters, designing and writing on a big cardboard that they used to put on top of the Christmas tree the famous song, Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Under the tree they re-created the Nativity scene done with empty cement bags which they exposed in a way that looked like real mountains and hills. In the centre there was the grotto with the baby Jesus in the cradle and the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the shepherds, goats, and lambs around him. From afar the three kings could be seen approaching the site.

The person most excited in the house was my father. He showed my mother how to prepare the fromage de tête, which he insisted we should eat after midnight, a tradition he must have learned from the Salesian Fathers in Bethlehem where he went to school. It consists of the head of a small calf that is boiled with spices and herbs for several hours. When it becomes tender, it is cooled and then the skin is removed and you throw everything except for the pieces of meat. The meat is then stuffed in a lamb’s paunch, tied with thread and put in the same soup to cook. Once done it is put between two wooden boards and pressed hard for two days. It was delicious, cut in thin slices. Poor mother, she hated doing it. My father, however, insisted on following traditions. He was a very serious and impressive gentleman, talking very little but, every year around Christmas and the New Year, we would not recognize him. He became sociable and joyful. He played cards and other games with us, had Father Christmas come to our house after midnight, bought presents for all the children of our relatives and neighbours, and enjoyed every minute of it.

On Christmas day, all the family was invited for lunch. It was traditional to cook turkey on that day. My parents used to buy a huge turkey at least one month before Christmas. They left it in our big garden in the same place they kept the chickens. Coming back from school, we all went to look at the black turkey. It used to open its wings and walk proudly. It was fun, until it was the time to slaughter it. Just before doing so they opened its mouth and poured a small glass of brandy down its throat. Was it to make it suffer less or to ameliorate the quality of the meat? This I do not know. Again, my mother had to follow the orders, there was no change in the menu: the roasted turkey, rice mixed with small pieces of meat and chestnuts, and yoghurt and salad. For dessert, we had Knafe and mandarins that were called Yousef Afandi. The Knafe was simply dough cut up like noodles that were steamed over boiling water. When done, they were mixed with melted clarified butter and hot syrup. This was really delicious. It was explained that the noodles resembled the straw on which Jesus was put in the cradle when he was born.

We never went to mass at midnight because the city was full of tourists. We used to attend the mass at 10 a.m. the following morning. From the vendors near the Church of the Nativity we used to buy two sorts of Halaweh: Halaweh msamsameh, which came on the market once a year on Christmas Eve, and Halaweh manfousheh. Halaweh is a typical winter sweet made of sesame seed oil.

The sweet memories of winter in those days will remain with me forever.

Mrs. Julia Dabdoub is the President of the Arab Women’s Union of Bethlehem since 1992. She is a member of the Peace and Justice Council that is affiliated with the Vatican and is a member of the board of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, in addition to her involvement in many other institutions. She published her book, “Lest We Forget,” (in Arabic) in 1998.

This Week in Palestine

February 2007

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