The Diaspora Potrezebe - Newsletter of the Alumni Association of the American Community
School at Beirut, Lebanon.
A child's Christmas in Lebanon
by Marge Kilkell
This article originally appeared in the December 7, 1995 issue of the Lincoln County News, Damariscotta, Maine. It was sent in by Liz Smith Rea '50.
What was it like to have Christmas in Lebanon? Schooner Cove resident Dr. Daniel Bliss ['16] recently shared his memories and stories. In 1856 his grandfather founded the American University of Beirut and served as its first president. When young Daniel was four years old, his family moved from New Jersey, where he was born, to Beirut, where his father succeeded his grandfather as University President.
Christmas was celebrated in the multicultural city by different ethnic groups, each with their own traditions. Daniel was fortunate to experience the American traditions of stockings and Santa along with German tree lighting and the more solemn holy day celebrations of the eastern tradition Maronites.
This Christmas season began several days before the 25th with the celebration in the German School. People would gather together to sing "Silent Night" and "O Tannenbaum." The center of attraction was a thirty foot Lebanon Pine tree covered from top to bottom with colored balls and lighted candles! There were two men with long "fishing poles" with wet sponges on the end, whose task it was to snuff out candles that seemed to be burning too near the long green pine needles. The youngsters all waited excitedly thinking that maybe they would miss one. Dr. Bliss still marvels today at the thought of a large room with hundreds of people and a pine tree with candles! After the lights went out there was a cookie sale in the side room. The cookies were packed in paper bags, the first ones he had ever seen. Special Christmas cookies were a treat for the whole faimly.
"My father was a great reader, his study was lined with bookcases full of books," Dr. Bliss recalled. , "We were only allowed in there to celebrate Christmas. It was a very special day."
Christmas Eve found the children hanging their stockings on the mantelpiece over the hugh fireplace in the study. On Christmas morning at daybreak the children would gather their stockings and parade up the marble stairs to the parents' room singing "Merry Merry Christmas, all the day . . ." They would all rush into the room and jump onto their parents' bed and settle in to open presents. Being the fourth of five children was a real benefit in the Bliss family. Christmas stockings and presents were opened one at a time -- beginning with the youngest!
Each would watch as a stocking present was opened; paper and ribbon were carefully saved for the next year, and each present was savored. It did seem unfair that the girls had long stockings and the boys had short stockings, but when the young boy compared the wonder of his small gift of a jackknife to the silly large gift of a hat for his sister, he decided that it was just fine, after all.
After chores, prayers and breakfast, it was time to open presents under the tree. One of the older children would hand out the gifts, a careful list was maintained of who the gift was from and what it was, in preparation for Thank You notes. While that was happening, Santa would arrive and peek in the high window over the bookcases and wave to the children. One year Daniel was concerned to notice that Santa had borrowed his father's red and white striped dressing gown. "I ran out of the study, to the back of the house and looked up on the roof where the window was and there was no one there," he recalled, "I thought, if it was my father how could he have gotten up there:? It was a big mystery to me."
The next year as the gifts were being opened and Santa due to arrive, young Daniel quietly walked out of the house and around to the back just in time to see Santa climbing up a ladder, and again he had borrowed his father's dressing gown. When Santa discovered that there was a spy in his midst he came down from the ladder and shared the "Santa secret" with him. Then Santa told him not to tell his little brother Huntington ['21]. Daniel went back into the study and waved back knowingly when Santa waved and winked at him. "I was so proud" he said "to think that that day I knew about Santa Claus and little Huntington still thought he was a ghost or something!"
That day little Daniel really became the big brother; old enough to keep Christmas secrets and keep the mystery and tradition alive for his younger brother.