A Christmas Story

Trying to untangle a strand of Christmas lights which seems to be as impossible as folding a fitted bed sheet, I endeavour to escape frustration and drift off into a mental numbness, leaving a vacuum for the mind to travel back in time, carried by the Christmas spirit, to Christmas eve anno 1979, landing softly in ‘Moshav Netiv Hagdud’, Israel. As the curtain of time defeats gravity, vivid images appear of this farming community, beautifully nestled between the Jordan river and biblical mountains that are not real mountains, for the valley lies well below sea level. A group of about twenty of us foreign workers enjoy some pre-journey drinks in anticipation of our planned pilgrimage to Bethlehem tonight. Silhouetted by the descending sun we sway down to the bus stop which is littered with ‘live’ machine gun cartridges, as all bus stops (in Israel) normally are. The law requires that the magazine is removed from the gun when boarding a bus, and frequently a bullet falls out whilst doing so. After loitering under and on top of the roof of the bus shelter for a while, our moment has come, and we board the bus to Jerusalem. Past Jericho and up the slopes, the beer makes its calling, so we ask the driver for a toilet stop. He agrees, for a modest fee of one beer and pulls over to the side, where we relieve ourselves in a civilised manner, girls squatting, and boys standing up in line next to them as gentlemen do. Soon we find ourselves on another bus for the short trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where large crowds of people from around the globe portray an image of what it would have felt like for Mary and Joseph. The Roman soldiers with their swords have now been replaced by Israeli soldiers with their ever present Uzi and M16 machine guns, trying to keep us safe from terrorist attack while we disperse, wander around and join the queue to visit the birthplace of Jesus, elevated by the angelic tunes of various international choirs. A few hours later a small group of us find ourselves back in Jerusalem, ready to share a maxi taxi back to the Moshav. Sitting on the footpath, my inner voice tells me to stay on, against the persuasion of my well-meaning friends. So, I walk the streets of this holy city, to nowhere in particular, on this chilly winter’s night. Overcome by tiredness I soon lay down to rest on a park bench. After an hour or so, my well-worn ‘American army fighting jacket’ from the army surplus store proves to be no match for tonight’s temperatures, causing me to rise and keep moving, through the fortified walls of the ‘New Gate’ when I feel invited by the beautiful sound of Christmas carols in the distance. Guided by this heavenly music I soon wander into the foyer of a crowded church, where midnight mass is being celebrated in German, my mother tongue. As I enjoy the comforting warmth, the priest delivers his sermon: Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the lonely. Blessed are the homeless, and I realize that for tonight I am all of this by choice, yet I found my spiritual home at this mass in the foyer of this church. I am not lonely, but one with all the people in this congregation and the world. I am not hungry, for my spiritual hunger has now been stilled. I stay until the end of the service and while the parishioners make their way home, I continue my journey with divine reassurance, through the streets of the old city, feeling carried by angels. A passer-by calls my name and I recognise Sheila, a girl and two of her friends I know from ‘Kibbutz Manara’ where I had worked a few months earlier. She asks where I was going, I reply “don’t know”. When angels call it’s wise to follow, so we join forces, finally landing up in an Arab tea house across the road from the Damascus gate. As time goes by, we form a merry crowd of backpackers from all corners of the earth. We drink tea whilst savouring some delicious Arabic sweets. An Austrian keeps the audience entertained, pointing out that Hitler was an Austrian, to the amusement of the local Palestinians. To my surprise, ‘Ulli’, a German friend whom we lost earlier in Bethlehem, stumbles in showing acute signs of intoxication. The teahouse breaks out in laughter and the party goes on until dawn, when we take to the road and everyone continues to travel their journey of life. Ulli and I decide to go back to the Moshav when we spot and get side-tracked by the entrance of a cave in the rocks under the northern city wall. For a modest entrance-fee we are allowed in and find a large cavern extending far beneath the old city. We learn of exciting biblical stories and events relating to this cave, right back to the time of Abraham. Back in daylight, a few market stalls have opened, where I treat myself, after a hard bargain, to a Christmas present, a ‘keffiyeh’ Palestinian head scarf. We proceed to the Arab bus station, the very place where, according to some archaeologists, the crucifixion took place. The seventy-plus looking Palestinian bus driver greets us warmly like he always does. We commence our journey to Jericho, mostly downhill, he puts the gears of his converted WW2 truck into neutral, as he always does, praying loud for the brakes not to fail. His prayers are answered when we stop at a checkpoint, where all the men must disembark and stand in line to be searched for weapons and explosives, by Israeli soldiers. Once in Jericho, we try our luck hitchhiking home to the Moshav, when another angel answers the call. It is Wahid, who manages the Palestinian workers whom we share our days with working in the fields, and he is heading for Moshav Netiv Hagdud. But first, after we help him unload some cargo from his van, in typical middle eastern fashion, we are invited to his house, privileged to meet his family for a round of traditional Arab tea. The sun is high when we reach home and find that we are the last ones to return. We all hang out and loose, booze flowing. I hit a few strings on the guitar wearing an old, rusty British army helmet that someone had picked up from amongst all the exploded mortar shells which were littered around the local area. Peacefully I doze off sitting in a chair this Christmas day 1979, and I time travel forty years forward. The lights are still only 70% untangled, nevertheless, I lay them onto a large bush and wait for the night. Later, holding a glass of red wine, I admire a mini universe consisting of a strand of stars with a cluster resembling a galaxy.