It’s fair to say I’m rather used to traditional well-honed family Christmases with delightfully predictable company, decor and food. The passage of time adds its own patina, of course, but generally little changes from year to year.
So leaving the UK is something of a big deal, especially when it’s to a destination where Christmas is not a top priority.
On opening the curtains this morning to see the crashing waves of the Mediterranean framing a solitary minaret, I experienced a frisson of the unknown, the unexpected. But Tel Aviv is a pretty cosmopolitan and multicultural city, and it’s not impossible to find a bit of tinsel.
Where we are finishing the day, though, it’s quite a different story. The original plan was to visit Bethlehem today, along with all the pilgrims, tourists and spectators who crowd this little town on 25th December.
But sometimes great plans founder, and the realisation that we were checking out of the Tel Aviv hotel only this morning, and would not have enough time to “do” Bethlehem as we wanted to, meant we shelved Christmas Day plan A, and opted for Christmas Day plan B. A quiet afternoon with the culinary incompetent half of the family watching films, and the culinary adept other half producing a festive meal of sorts in a stranger’s kitchen.
For our accommodation over the next week is a house-swap arrangement with a family we’ve never met. We’ve done it before extremely successfully, and so it didn’t take much to decide to do it this time. There’s just one significant detail to add. After a great deal of soul-searching and thought and debate, we have found ourselves in a West Bank settlement for a week.
Eeek and eeek again. This is troubling our consciences enormously, and we have no idea how it’s going to work out. It’s a long-established settlement (not sure that makes it any more justifiable, but we’re talking thousands of shades of grey here).
But I feel in some way it’s an important experience for good or for bad. I spend much of my daily life challenging assumptions and perceptions and arguing for open-mindedness. I am in favour of tolerance and listening, and I am conscious that pre-judging and generalising about any society or community is potentially to fall into a trap of narrow mindedness.
So for a week, I have a real chance to observe, look, experience, listen and encounter a community I admit I cannot begin to understand at the moment.
Naturally there’s absolutely no sign of it being Christmas Day here. Business as usual in the local mall, and not a tinselly bauble to be seen. It feels very very strange to be so far removed from the trappings of an English Christmas.
Nonetheless, I wish you all a very Happy Christmas indeed, wherever you may find yourselves.