A Merry Little Christmas
by Bruce H. Mero
Carefully, I led the little donkey up the six or eight steps to the portico. Jim nodded that he was ready. I swung open the two doors. Everyone in the little church turned to see what was happening. I tugged on the donkey's lead and he started over the last step, but caught his front foot on the threshold, tripped and fell to its knees at the top step. On its back, Father Christmas lurched forward and pitched over the donkey's neck and head, sprawling onto the tile floor. The bag of gifts he had slung over his shoulder catapulted into the air between the pews and crashed on the floor midway to the altar. The contents of the sack spilled out. Presents spewed up the aisle, apples, oranges and pomegranates rolled under the seats. The kids screeched and scrambled to pick up the presents in a frenzy. I'd managed to dodge the falling donkey, the flying Father Christmas and the airborne sack of goodies and went to Jim's side to help him to his feet. He was groaning and laughing. He'd skinned his knees, ripping the Santa pants in the process. His laughing quickly turned to a deep "Ho, Ho, Ho" as he popped up, pretending that his entrance flop had been planned all along. He merged into the scramble of kids, picking up gifts and fruit off the floor and placing them into outstretched hands. I retreated to the entry stairs and led the poor little donkey back down the steps, handed the rope to its owner Mahmood and paid him the agreed-upon five tomans for renting his animal. I shook his hand and wished him "Aide shoma mobarack"...equivalent to happy holidays, in Farsi.
Pastor Kahlil's church service was ended, there was no way that he could restore order and continue any further. His ad hoc congregation headed to the exit, the excitement in the kids was palpable. Outside, snowflakes were drifting out of the night sky as if on a Christmas Eve cue. One of the older Iranian gentlemen leaving the church said that he'd never been in Kerman when it snowed, this was the first time in his fifty years!
Our group of Peace Corps volunteers headed through the falling snow to Jim and Cindy Ranii's house on Zariff Street, about a kilometer's walk from the church. There we ate and drank Russian Vodka until midnight.
A third of the group spent the night at Len and Marsha's house, a third slept at our place in the bazaar and the rest stayed at Jim and Cindy's. We awoke Christmas morning to six inches of snow on the ground. It was purely magical, though to the residents of Kerman it was a nuisance. Automobile traffic ground to an absolute halt. Anyone foolish enough to try to drive on the streets quickly learned of the folly they'd undertaken. No one native to Kerman had ever driven on snow there before and the few taxi drivers who dared, spun tires and skidded around and bumped into things. The sidewalks were icy and walking was difficult. The streets were mostly empty as we led our group back to Zariff Street and to the Ranii's for Christmas breakfast.
The bazaar hummed with activity as though it summer. On the way to the Ranii house, we stopped at the bakery near the end of the bazaar and picked up a dozen flat breads, nonie sangak, hot out of the oven. At the shop across the alley, we purchased several pails of fresh yogurt, a kilo of goat cheese and a couple of football-shaped melons. We met up with the group who'd spent the night at Len and Marsha's place at Maidone Moshtack as they were turning onto Zariff Street. They'd also picked up flat bread and yogurt, as well as a couple of kilos of pomegranates and grapefruits and a huge sack of jumbo shrimp and lobsters brought up that morning from the Persian Gulf by lorry that had, somehow, negotiated the snow covered and icy roads.
We never once saw a car on Zariff Street, the roads on this end of town were so bad no one was attempting to drive on them. Getting to the Ranii house by foot on the slippery sidewalks was a challenge since no one had winter boots, of course. Most of us were also freezing. Nobody had brought winter coats or hats or scarves or mittens to Iran. The group milled around outside another bakery as Gretchen and Marsha went inside to purchase a couple of kilos of colompay cookies, a Kerman specialty, pocket pastries filled with fig jam. The bakery was warm inside and before long a number of folks in our group had jammed into the little store to buy more cookies...and to defrost.
Jim and Cindy's house was just up the block. It was toasty inside and smelled marvelous. Cindy had baked a half-dozen loaves of bread, American style, while the rest of us were drinking vodka the night before and was now cooking a huge batch of French toast. Gretchen pulled a quart of New York State maple syrup out of the bag she was carrying, a gift from a friend at home that had arrived in the mail a few weeks prior. She and Cindy had planned the menu for this communal breakfast all along.
We feasted. Breakfast was followed by rounds of celebratory vodka shots and other inebriants, then followed by several kilos of freshly boiled shrimp and lobster, then more vodka. I lifted my glass and offered a toast to our hosts, Jim and Cindy and to Jim's brilliant idea to get as many Peace Corps volunteers as possible to Kerman for Christmas and then to Pastor Kahlil for last night's church service. The Father Christmas thing had been Kahlil's idea. Jim had discussed his plot to get a bunch of volunteers into town and asked if Kahlil would have a Christmas Eve service in his little Anglican church. Kahlil's wife, Janet, instantly agreed that he'd do the service. She was a little lonely as the only Australian in town, and welcomed the opportunity to have company and conversations in English with real Westerners for a change. Kahlil came up with a the ancient, faded, red Father Christmas costume that Jim wore into the church on Christmas Eve. Jim was a tall, skinny guy and the suit was meant for a much fatter man, so it hung huge on him. He tied a rope around his waist to keep the pants from falling down and had to roll the pants legs up several times to keep from tripping on them. Jim's scruffy black beard and mustache had to serve for the fake Santa beard Kahlil had in his costume box. That one was old, gray and moldy and Jim refused to put it on.
The donkey was my idea and I'd arranged to "rent" him from Ahmad's brother, Mahmood. Ahmad was the tea man at the State of Kerman Engineering Office where Jim, Gretchen and I worked. I paid five times the asking price for Jim's ride up the stairs of the church. The simple gifts and fruits in Father Christmas' sack were accumulated as a group effort.
Over forty Peace Corps volunteers had come into Kerman by bus from all over Iran. There were no telephones to do the inviting, so we mentioned the gathering to a few volunteers we'd seen recently and word-of-mouth did the rest. Fortunately, we'd spoken of the intended gathering to our friend, Siad Nejhad who'd informed the secret police of our plans prior to Christmas Eve. None of our guests were detained or hassled by the police, as would have been the case for foreigners arriving in town unannounced, had Siad not been out front on our behalf.
Pastor Kahlil had invited as many people as he knew to the service. The pews were filled in that little Anglican church for the first time since Kahlil had assumed the pastor's position and moved his family into town.
Janet reveled in the company of so many English speaking visitors. She and Kahlil and their kids spent as much time at Jim and Cindy's house as they could and had many of our volunteer friends to their house for tea the morning after Christmas, before anyone had returned home. Half of our company left on buses as soon as the snow on the roads had melted and bus service in and out of Kerman had resumed. The remaining folks left over the next week, no one seemed to be in a real hurry to get back home, absorbing the camaraderie of the group and making it last as long as possible. Janet soaked in as much English as she could while our guests were in town.
It was a perfect Christmas. Friends gathered and celebrated. It snowed for the first time in over half a century. The church was filled. The children who were attending that night received presents from Father Christmas who flew through the doors of the church and tossed his gifts to everyone who was there. It couldn't have been any better.
Our house guests left just in time, the cold snap which brought the snow to Kerman on Christmas Eve lasted for a couple of weeks. It got so cold that the underground water pipes coming into our house in the bazaar froze and burst. Streams of water spurted into the air from the broken pipes. Eventually we found the shut-off valve and made the repairs to the pipes. We took it all in stride, the mellow we were on from that perfect Christmas celebration was within us weeks later. It returned to me as I recounted this story, all of these years later.
Merry Christmas to you all!