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The Blessed Tree

Contributed by Turathuna Bethlehem University on 23.01.2007:

The Blessed Tree is the olive tree blessed by God. Due to its diverse uses, the ancients and modernists alike respect it. Palestine has long been famous for the great number of olive trees found here. On the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem there are still a few trees dating back to the time of Christ. The olive tree is coniferous and may live hundreds of years. The diameter of the large tree may be one meter. Its branches are numerous and its twigs shoot out small, stiff, dark-green leaves which are about seven centimeters in length by one centimeter in breadth. Its fruit is eaten after conserving it in vinegar, oil, sour lemon and spices.

Olive oil has been known since ancient times. It is both popular and blessed. In the past one used to place it in a small vessel called “Siraj” (lamp) together with a thin wick and light it. Hence the room would be illuminated many long hours. Soon it was used in chandeliers for illuminating places of worship. It is used in cooking and frying just like butter. Stone masons, workers in tiresome jobs and others used to dip oven (tabun) baked bread in it and eat it early in the morning before going to work, believing that it overcomes the malaise of dizziness. Some drink a small coffee cupful, considering it a tonic and nourishment.

It was also used as medicine for massaging the muscles, as a moisturizer for the legs and hands whose skin was rough and coarse,and as nourishment for dry hair. The people of Bethlehem, its area and others are happy as long as they have large quantities of oil at home, depending on it to secure their livelihood. Among the inherited sayings is “Powdered thyme (duqqa) and oil lead to the prosperity of the home.” In other words, as long as bread, powdered thyme and oil are available, they are safe from starvation. This thyme is the powder from dried thyme leaves. Salt and some spices are added. Oil is placed on one plate and powdered thyme on the other and then bread is dipped into both. It is worth mentioning that this food is popular even in the diasporas. The grand children’s love of it excels that of their fathers, and they often ask their relatives at home to send it to them. Thus many parcels are sent by post.

In September olive tree – grains begin to form thus they say, ‘In September oil is formed in the olive trees.” They are ready for gathering in October, following the experts’ report to the Municipality which declares the date when gathering may begin.

The Municipality used to send out a crier to roam the city streets to announce, “Oh, people of the town, by the order of the Municipality, olive gathering will be on Monday the tenth of October; will those present inform those absent!” Wooden ladders, baskets, cloths and the like would be prepared.

The owners of the olive tree groves then make an agreement with “the gatherers”, the men who gather the olives letting them fall on the ground, and “the pickers”, the women who pick up the grains from under trees after the men’s work is over.

In the early morning of the fixed day, workers come to the homes of the field owners. The gatherers carry the ladders, while the pickers carry the smaller things.

Olives are gathered into canvas bags and carried on mule or camel back to the press (badd) to extract the oil. In the past oil was extracted through efficient though primitive presses, one of which still remains in An-Najajrah Quarter belonging to the Jaqaman family. Formerly the press was run by a big stone wheel drawn by a horse. Oil flowed by manual presses.

The olive tree must be trimmed (taqnib) once a year at least. Some of the branches from its centre are cut off so they do not intertwine and thus hinder the gatherer. Also the branches which hang to the ground are cut short. The thin twigs are used as fuel for houses and ovens but the thick ones are sold to stores specializing in olive wood works. From these, statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are made. They also make camels, donkeys, boxes, frames and other tourist articles.

Olive wood is wheat colored. It contains beautiful rooted, brown lines, which are pleasing to the eye. Once a certain carpenter collected numerous pieces in which the lines appeared in the form of the figure of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and others. He exhibited them for a long time impressing all who saw them.

During the gathering and transporting of the olives a man passes in the streets carrying pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Behind him follows his donkey bearing four tins. He asks those with olives to contribute a little oil to the Convent of Al-Khader, crying “Oil for Al-Khader, oil!” People come out of their homes carrying bottles and glasses full of oil which they empty in the tin and then kiss the pictures.

Source:”Bethlehem, The Immortal Town” by Giries Elali

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