Seeing holiday spirit through the eyes of a child
December 7, 2005
Looking at the cosy commercial cheeriness of holiday television, it’s hard to believe that we’re a country at war. Only during the evening news are there reminders of bombings, guerrilla street fights and battlefront attacks, all punctuated eerily by soldiers sending videotaped holiday greetings to their loved ones back home.If it weren’t for the evening news, it would be all too easy to forget about these things. Most Americans aren’t suffering war shortages or deprivations in a material way, nor are most of us exposed to the sight of a military uniform on a daily basis. But it’s still happening – and in places that are just an airplane ride away.Back in early December of 2002, I was returning to the United States after a long stay in England. It was still a time of super-heightened security, and airports in England were indeed paranoid places to be. I arrived early at London’s Gatwick that morning and had gotten through the by-then accustomed lines in record time. And so I sat – in the sort of crestfallen, culture-shocked state I’m always in when I’ve just said goodbye to my friends in my beloved Yorkshire – and watched the security surrounding me, and pondered the imponderability of a world once again at war.As I sat, I felt a pair of eyes regarding me, and turned to face the most cherubic angel of a little boy I’ve ever seen. I am not a gusher over children – I don’t generally wax enthusiastic over infant charms. But this was an exception.
Bright blue eyes, bright blonde hair – he was the very image of Peter Billingsley in “A Christmas Story.” An all-American little boy going on a trip for Christmas.Or so I thought.The child came over to me and extended his hand. “I’m Jonathan,” he said simply. He spoke with a British accent.I shook hands. “I’m Keely,” I replied, and tried not to look as nonplussed as I felt.”May I sit with you?” he asked. I nodded enthusiastically, but couldn’t help the uneasy feeling that this was going to be like a moment out of a J.D. Salinger novel.”I’m going to America,” Jonathan informed me seriously. “Are you going to America, too?””Yes, I’m going home to Georgia,” I told him.”I’m going to Florida to visit my grandparents – my mother’s parents.” He leaned a little closer. “I’ve never been to Florida before. I live in Iraq.”
“You do?” I asked, and prayed that my voice didn’t betray any surprise, any emotion. But my heart leapt for this child.”My father is from Iraq, and that’s where we live,” he said. As he spoke, I looked up and caught his mother’s eye. She was sitting a little distance away from us, a lovely young American woman, and looked nervously toward her son. No doubt she was wondering what he was saying to this complete stranger – and how the stranger would take it. I smiled over at her reassuringly, and she returned my smile.”I go to an English school there,” said Jonathan, who was obviously determined to do all the talking, which was just as well. “That’s because my mother’s American. Do you celebrate Christmas?””Yes, I do,” I answered. By now I was beginning to take Jonathan’s unexpectedness in stride. “Do you?” “No, I celebrate Ramadan. We’re Muslim, you know. Of course, my grandparents will have an American Christmas for me in Florida this year, but back at home we are still celebrating Ramadan. I like Ramadan.” Suddenly he stood up. “I think our plane will leave soon, and I want to get some candy from the store over there. Excuse me.”Jonathan went over to get some money from his mother, and I sat, thinking hard. It was all so simple, so profound. An American and an Iraqi serenely discussing Christmas and Ramadan …
No, not an American and an Iraqi. Just a woman and a little boy.By the time he returned, his gate was being called. As I waved and called goodbye to him, he stopped, turned, and whispered something to his mother. Then he ran back to me as fast as he could.In his outstretched hand he held the large Toblerone bar he had just gone to the store to buy for himself. He put it in my hands. “Merry Christmas, Keely,” he said.”Happy Ramadan, Jonathan,” I answered. I waved brightly until he was out of sight, so he never saw my tears.Every Christmas, I remember Jonathan. I hope that he is well and happy.And safe, in this world at war.