Saturday, December 10, 2011

It's Beginning to Look (Sort of) Like Christmas...Challenge 19: Getting Ready for a Jordan Christmas

If I were back in the United States I'd be in the midst of finals week at Saint Michael's College.  At my Catholic college and in Vermont generally (which looks like a Christmas card even when it isn't Christmas), Christmas would be twirling all around me like the thoughts in Herman Cain's head. Here in Jordan, where the vast majority of the population is Muslim, not so much. So, I decided that, as an expat, the challenge to celebrating Christmas overseas was to figure out for myself what are the indispensable parts, then find ways to make them happen.  And anyone who knows me knows my two non-negotiations: celebrating Wigilia (the Polish Christmas Eve dinner introduced to my family by our close friends, the Szuberts when I was a kid) and making Christmas cookies.  So, I've decided to celebrate Christmas in Jordan by celebrating Wigilia and making Christmas cookies.  And because it's Jordan, both have shaped up as challenges in their own ways.

Turtle Green, a popular coffee shop on Rainbow Street put up some traditional Christmas garlands...

...while a tea and smoke shop a few blocks away offered a display of Santa Claus amidst the nargileh (sheisha) pipes.

On the Christmas cookie front, the big issue has been sourcing ingredients.  Who'd have thought that pure vanilla extract, Hershey kisses and plain old chocolate chips could be so hard to find?  My Fulbright colleague and friend,Tess, who also happens to be an extraordinary cook, suggested that we should go on an ingredient expedition to Cozmo, an Amman supermarket with a reputation for carrying lots of foods Westerners seek.  I did find molasses, but struck out on vanilla and my chocolate products. So, I'm now using vanilla powder (which is not as good but at least does not have the chemical taste of artificial vanilla) and chopping up chocolate bars to replace chocolate chips.  No substitute for Hershey kisses, but the ever-thoughtful Cooper, one of the residents of Carpetland, the Fulbrighter apartment nearest me, said he'd bring some back from the Kansas, where he's been participating in his sister's wedding, if he has room in his suitcase.  I am anxiously awaiting the verdict on that one. For cookie cutters I have hearts and stars -- but the stars have kind of narrow points that make the "arms" fall off at inopportune moments.  So, this year, we'll be eating lots of the not-so-traditional Christmas Heart.

So far, the substitutions seem to be working okay.  My annual Christmas cookie production has begun -- here are Meltaways, Jam Thumbprints, Chocolate Sugar Cookies and Santa's Whiskers.
On the Wigilia front, things are coming along in a big way, literally.  So far, eighteen people have answered my invitation to experience a Wigilia.  Assuming my apartment can hold them all, and the recipes I've found on-line for borscht made out of canned beets are not disgusting, we should be in good shape.  A team of people have volunteered for a marathon dumpling day, in which everyone will be put to work turning out ushkas and pierogis, and multiple people have volunteered to help out with the sizable amounts of vodka entailed in a dinner involving seven vodka toasts for eighteen people. How it all turns out will certainly be the subject of a future Jordan Challenge post, but the early signs are promising.

And best of all, I've found that, once I starting throwing myself into my two major Christmas pursuits, I started seeing Christmas all around me, too. I finally saw the definitively Christmas-y movie Love Actually (a bunch of my Fulbright friends were horrified that I had never seen it, and procured a bootleg copy -- perfectly fine except for some skips in the middle and the excision of some scenes deemed too racy for local viewers), a significant fraction of the shops on Rainbow Street have put up some decoration in honor of the season, and today, in honor of my birthday, my friends Elizabeth, Grace, Hannah and I headed back to Madaba, a town with a sizable Christian population for mosaic-viewing and Christmas shopping.
Grace showing off some mosaics in the partially restored Church of the Virgin Mary of Madaba.

Although you can't see the statue of Santa playing a clarinet behind us, what drew us to Haret Jdoudna for lunch was less the Christmas decorations and more the fabulous food.

Madaba even has a big Christmas tree set up in one of the city's traffic circles.  Elizabeth and I thought the Christmas stocking ornament theme was a bit limiting, but still plenty photo-worthy.

So, I guess it is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, after all, if only you know where to look and are able to appreciate the form you find.

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