MEMORIES OF CHRISTMAS IN MANGESHI
By: Francis K. Khosho
My first memories of Christmas are centered around the traditions and customs of my home town of Mangeshi. Mangeshi lies in the mountainous region of Northern Iraq, within the province of Dehook. Its houses are nestled between a hill and a mountain, a locale and setting reminiscent of that of Bethlehem in year one of our era. The mountain is part of the Gara range of the Zagros Mountains, which borders the Supna valley on the south and rises to nearly 700 feet.
Mangeshi village has a compact, nucleated structure of over five hundred homes. It is a composite of houses all standing next to each other, side-by-side, only divided by winding alleys and pathways. Some houses are attached to each other, with shared walls. In fact, most of the village houses are so close together that one could walk or jump from roof to roof without much difficulty.
Memories of home and country, folks and friends and of persons and occasions from the last forty five years overcrowd my mind. Christmas day, the nine day fast, midnight mass, socializing after morning mass, people greeting one another, Christmas cookies (kadi), and the cylindrical wood stoves (zopa) are all mixed into these early memories.
These years were the most formative of my life, for they marked the transitional period where we went from the countryside, where life was simple and unsophisticated, to the city where life assumed its complexities and magnified its privileges. The mind always projects itself back to the days of our youth in the country, and to the little village of Mangeshi, the light of my eyes.
The villagers of Mangeshi have always been religion-centered, particularly during the Christmas season. Their traditions were well established, as can be traced to the early years of Christianity. The Christmas season, and more particularly Christmas day, has impressed itself most vividly in my memory. The days of fasting that preceded it, the preparation for the feast, the liturgy, and the day itself, certainly establish an experience that is everlasting.
The Eastern Chaldean Church has the custom of a nine day fast. The abstinence of all food, drink, and tobacco, which would completely stop until noon on the last day. It was observed as a preparation for Christ and was born out of the concept of developing Christ-mindedness and sentiment in order to welcome and celebrate Christ and His birth. Other preparations which concerned the feast itself were organized by the mothers and elder sisters of our village, who were kept busy throughout the season. Their time was spent sewing Christmas dresses, assembling house decorations, preparing provisions for the feast and the like. It was, of course, an absolute source of pride that all the children in the family be newly fitted.
A particularly fascinating spectacle was the baking of the Christmas bread, all of which was baked the day or night before, amid choruses of song. This was a very special affair where talent and ingenuity from our mothers and sisters rendered such beautiful, long-lasting memories for us. The bread took on a great variety of patterns and shapes: circular, triangular, square, the shape of a cane (qopala), little doll shapes, or whatever my mother would dream up. Every family in the village made a very large circular piece (called “Christmas cake”) about thirty inches in diameter for the pastor of the church. What did the pastor do with all of these cakes? I never knew, but the idea of all that cake as a young child was fascinating.
In this little village, Christmas possessed so much picturesque joy that I have not seen anywhere else. On Christmas night, scores of children would go from house to house, a tradition known as “Mel Melava,” where they would wish the son or daughter of the house to be the best bride or groom in the village. They would sing traditional songs associated with specific melodies and rhymes. For example:“Mel Mel Melava Toma Zava, Mel Meloki Tha Mkhomatha Boki.” This same custom still prevails throughout the village today.
The highlight of the whole season was the Christmas service. It began at about midnight when the church bells would call the village community to worship. The chanting began, and the people would stream into the church in crowds until it was literally full. All generations would participate, old and young. Children would come in early to find a good position for the ceremony, so that they could be sure to see everything. The custom of taking off one’s shoes upon entering the church was also quite interesting to a young child, in that hundreds of shoes were scattered about the entrance. How to find your shoes among so many and with such great variety was the challenge of the evening!
The mass began after the priest and deacons finished the morning office. The priest was vested with his best garb: amice, alb, stole, cincture, maniple, and the cope. All the deacons would wear: albs, stoles, and cinctures. The acolytes (telmethi) would dress in white, whether lace or linen, with a red band around their waist, and another decorated round piece of material on their shoulders.
When the mass started, the priest would come down from the altar and stand before the iconostasis (setra), a long and wide curtain that was adorned with a cross in the middle, and which separated the sanctuary from the rest of the church. It was to be drawn open during the liturgy at the first ablutions and would reveal a heavenly sight. The church was lit entirely by candles, as there were no electric lights anywhere. The priest stood in the front and the first two rows were composed of about fifteen acolytes, forming two lines perpendicular to the altar. In back of the acolytes, the deacons would stand with the rest of the choir, singing to the sound of cymbals (sanoji). This wondrous scene would meet the eyes as the curtain would open, and the sight before you would stand out with all of its simplicity and majestic inspiration. It would command the attention of the mind, the affections of the heart, and the yearning of the soul.
The congregation, men and women, boys and girls, all together at certain parts of the mass would sing with those in the sanctuary. Men and women were separated and there were usually no seats left available. The body of the church was divided into two parts: the front and the back. In the front, boys would sit forward, and men were to the rear; in the back, the girls would sit forward and the women in the rear.
Social gatherings would start immediately after the mass. One would usually find a big gathering outside of the church with people greeting each other and practically pulling one another by the sleeves to see if they can get their friends to come to breakfast. Most would also invite friends to a little gathering for the afternoon, nothing too big, just a roasted sheep or lamb head and legs (qarqeptha), stuffed stomach (kepaye) and a few drinks (‘Arak, wine, etc.). Primarily, however, the feast was for the different generational branches of large familial connections. Usual guests would include old uncles and aunts, cousins, married sons and daughters, grandparents and children of the family of all ages. All would gather together for a warm and affectionate celebration to rejoice in this merry season. I specifically remember family members conversing around the cylindrical fire wood stove (zopa), where enormous logs were glowing and blazing and sending a vast volume of light and heat (M Dab Dobie) to warm its surroundings.
The seasonal Christmas visit would bring to the house anyone from the mayor (ra’s) to others in the village. The best and often only chair was accorded to the priest when he would visit a home and a tray of the best fruits and Christmas cookies were immediately offered. The rest of the family, but usually the head of the household, would squat on his heels or sit on a low stool by the visitor. They would commence with greetings, wishing each other a Merry Christmas. The visitor would extend his greetings to all members of the family, with the most common greeting being: “Hewayle Maran” (“our Lord is born”) and the response “Shuha L’Shimeh” (“glory be to His name”). Then all would sit down and everybody would participate in the conversation.
A usual custom on an occasion like this would be that no matter whom the visitor was, they would always show particular attention to the children of the family by giving them toys, little gifts, or telling jokes to the merriment of all. The child of course would take liberties to play jokes on the visitor, tugging at the wide band across the visitor’s waist, or pulling at the beads encircling his dagger which was stuck under his wide band, or, fascinated by the gold, silver and studded stones of the sheath; he might pull the dagger out of its sheath all together. The dagger that men would carry on such occasions was, of course, purely decorative.
Such seasonal visits would rarely end in a matter of minutes. They would go on for hours, time spent smoking, drinking (Turkish coffee or tea) and eating to the heart’s content. Everyone that would come in was encouraged to try the Christmas bread.
When one family would visit another, they would have the same procedure. However, the visiting family was the guest for the whole day, and they could not return home even if they tried. In this most cordial atmosphere all were treated well and the children exceptionally so.
Such simple folks show great contentment in everything they do. Their life is not at all like it is in America or Europe; but rather, it is much more humble and genuine. However, the Christmas ceremony and traditions of our youth is something we all still carry with us into adulthood and teach to our children. Its resonance and impact on our lives is something we will always carry with us no matter where we land in the world.
Due to the current world-wide pandemic, it is of particular importance this year that I extend my blessings and prayers to all who have been affected. It is my hope that you will find strength and peace in the upcoming Christmas season and stay faithful through these trying times. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.
Francis K. Khosho