Christmas in Yemen
Naomi Prior, 23, is studying Arabic in Yemen. She tells us what life is like for an English woman in the intriguing Middle Eastern country.
Naomi's parents join her for the festive season as she discovers that Yemenis capture the magic of Christmas in a very special way.
"Do you think I'm too old to sit on Father Christmas's knee?" I asked my friend Laura. Before she could answer, two presents landed in our lap. This wasn't a scene from a Christmas party in Britain, but the Christmas Eve party of a Lebanese friend in Yemen. Any doubts that it wouldn't feel 'Christmassy' in Yemen were quickly dispelled. There was an enormous artificial Christmas tree, Christmas carols playing in the background and Father Christmas delighting children with gifts.
It was reassuring to experience the ease of which people of all religions and beliefs shared in the festivities organised by our Christian Lebanese friend. The spirit of sharing in different religious celebrations was enhanced by Eid Al Adha (the Festival of Sacrifice), which fell in the same month as Christmas and made December a special month for everyone. "Eid Mubarak" from me to Yemenis received the enthusiastic reply of: "And Eid Mubarak, Happy Christmas and New Year to you too".
My parents joined me for Christmas. As we travelled around Yemen I was increasingly struck by how many Christmas traditions we experienced. For example, the Nativity play. I wouldn't be so bold as to suggest who might play Mary, Joseph or Jesus. Nor would I stoke anyone's ego by bestowing the title of the Three Wise Men. Yet they could certainly get their shopping done because the Souq of Old Sana'a is one of the few places left in the world where they could buy their gold, frankincense and myrrh.
"We had a stable on the ground floor where the neighbour's cows slept every night. Complete with straw, plenty of 'mooing' and the braying of donkeys outside, it was a perfect nativity stable."
My parents and I spent three magical days staying in a traditional Yemeni home perched on a mountain top, near Manahka in Western Yemen. When you focused on the breathtaking mountain views you saw tiny white dots moving across the landscape, which of course were actually sheep and goats being tended by young shepherds. Their calls reverberated around the terraces and mountains, which were home to plenty of donkeys, another Nativity essential. I thought about breaking into the childhood carol classic of Little Donkey, but without the obligatory half coconuts to make the 'clip clop' noises, it just wasn't the same.
We had a stable on the ground floor where the neighbour's cows slept every night. Complete with straw, plenty of 'mooing' and the braying of donkeys outside, it was a perfect nativity stable. The evening stars auditioned convincingly for the Star of Bethlehem. My Mum definitely deserves the title of being an angel for being so patient, kind and uncomplaining; especially when my Dad pleaded that he should be one of the three Wise Men. The Manahka villagers also deserve to be angels because of their warmth, generosity and openness to three British strangers who descended into their world. We tried to demonstrate our gratitude at being welcomed so warmly by offering the neighbours' gifts of biscuits, chocolates and sweets (not quite gold, frankincense and myrrh).
I lost count, but I think the family had at least 13 children! The older girls would produce trays of sultanas, sweets and popcorn, to be washed down by glasses of the sweet, delicately spiced Yemeni tea I've grown to adore. Spending time with the families in Manahka revealed another shared tradition of dressing up at Christmas. In Yemen the concept of wearing new 'Eid dresses' is very much alive and we were even treated to a fashion parade. Little Ali had a toy jambiya dagger, mimicking the traditional dress his father and other Yemeni wear in the North of Yemen.
Christmas, especially when you are a child, feels very magical. Yemen with its villages perched on hill tops, old houses with giant steps, mists that descend over the terraces and spectacular star displays, makes you feel as if you're in a magical land all year round.