Posted by Indiana Wesleyan University on Thu, Dec 22, 2011

by Lauren Rahman, IWU senior

When Nathan Sayegh, IWU junior and nursing student, is visiting extended family in the Middle Eastern country of Jordan, he never expects a white Christmas.

“It will snow over there, but it shuts the whole country down,” he says, “They just sit inside and wait for it to melt.”

While it is a rarity, every few years an inch or so of snow will fall on the dusty Jordanian landscape, causing parents and children to take shelter.

“The idea of going out and building a snowman or playing in the snow is insanity,” says Sayegh.

While Sayegh’s mother is from Iowa, his father celebrates his Jordanian heritage. They take turns visiting and celebrating with the two different sides of the family, traveling to Sayegh’s grandparents’ home in Jordan at every opportunity during the holidays. The family has been established and living in this area for 150 years, making family gatherings impressive affairs.

The Jordanian culture emphasizes family and relationships. Sayegh says that relatives will drive long distances and even fly to see the family at Christmas, regardless of whether or not they were present last Christmas.

“It’s a cultural obligation and a family obligation,” he shares.

This reflects in the way Sayegh’s family celebrates the holidays.

“People will basically do the rounds,” he says.

Relatives take turns visiting each other’s homes, a tradition that lasts all day on Christmas Day. Who visits whose home is based on seniority. Sayegh’s grandparents, as the oldest and most respected family members, never have to leave their home.  Instead, they host family members with an array of coffee, sweet pastries, and Jordan almonds, a must-have namesake treat.

The Sayeghs’ Christmas table is always filled with savory Jordanian food, while the scents of nutmeg, cumin, and rosemary mingle and fill the air. Sayegh enjoys the rich flavors of stuffed chicken, chickpea or eggplant hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and dense salads.

“The whole culture is based around food and relationships,” says Sayegh.

Before the countless family visits and feasts begin, Sayegh’s grandparents set up a Christmas tree, complete with ornaments and lights. The kids help decorate, hanging festive bulbs on a fake tree. No real evergreens can be found in the country, a place that has no grass.

On the night before Christmas, the family attends the Orthodox church right down the street. Children act as deacons, lighting candles and reading verses for the congregation. They also perform a holiday skit. Christmas Eve ends the same as every night, with card games and coffee with the immediate family and neighbors.

On Christmas morning, Sayegh’s uncle dresses up as Santa Claus, something Sayegh says is “totally unrealistic.”

“Our uncles have these big, thick black beards,” he laughs, “they don’t look anything like Santa.”

All the children know their uncle, not Santa, is wearing a big red suit, but that doesn’t stop them from playing along and having fun. Sayegh’s youngest cousins open gifts, enjoying the fact that they are still young enough to receive presents, which typically ends around the age of twelve.

His cousins always make the holiday season livelier. From one of his first visits to family in Jordan, Sayegh remembers the horrified and surprised look on his mother’s face after giving a brand new toy car to one of the children. The boy immediately proceeded to play roughly, almost battering the toy. Within an hour, the car’s axle was broken.

“The toys kids get for Christmas don’t survive that day,” says Sayegh, “I don’t know if it’s just the culture or just our family, but the parents kind of let them run wild until they are twelve.”

Every part of the holidays are special for Sayegh, even the Christmas gifts his cousins manage to mangle before the end of the day. He relishes moments spent playing cards while drinking coffee, or going to the store for pastries. Trips to visit his Jordanian family never disappoint, giving him an opportunity to share a warm, Middle Eastern Christmas with family.


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