“I cannot believe,” I announce to my mother and father from the back seat of the car, “that there will be a live donkey at church today.” We are driving to the small Quaker meetinghouse my family has attended for nearly two decades.
When I was a child, I was a wise man in the pageant for three years running. I wore a maroon choir robe, a paper crown, and a garland of crumbled tinsel, saved and reused like it really was precious silver. In my day, there were no donkeys in the pageant. That was eighteen years ago. Now I visit our Quaker meeting once a year during the holidays. I am a guest. The donkey and I have that in common.
“Angelo has been coming to church for Christmas for few years now,” my mother says. Angelo is the donkey. Yes, the donkey has a name. This where things begin to fall apart. This is the first reason why I can no longer participate in the holiday traditions of my childhood. This is why I am no longer fit for Christmas
For three years, I lived in the place where Christmas comes from. No, I don’t mean the North Pole. I lived in Palestine, the place my Grandma always called “The Holy Land.” I worked in a small, rural village called Tuwani, where my job was to support Palestinian farmers nonviolently resisting expulsion from their homes. Tuwani is about 35 miles south of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. In fact, I used to go to the little town of Bethlehem for a beer on my days off.
“Angelo is a very nice donkey,” my mother offers.
“I could use a beer right now,” I think.
I’ve done it all. I’ve kissed the place where they say that Jesus was born. I’ve even taken a bus to a field just outside of Bethlehem that my friend Elias swore was the field where the Heavenly Host appeared to shepherds watching their flocks by night. My Grandma always hoped that living in the Holy Land would transform me, bring me closer to Jesus. Sometimes I wish for that too, but living in Palestine only changed me into a person who doesn’t fit Christmas.
I fiddle with the seat belt. I’m anxious. In a few minutes, I’ll be surrounded by Quakers singing Christmas carols. Quakers are exactly as nice as you think they are. But already I know that these Quakers, with their Birkenstocks and American naïveté, will make my skin crawl. When they sing “Oh come, oh come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel,” I will want to seize the microphone, and tell everyone about the time an Israeli soldier arrested my friend Nasser for no reason whatsoever. I’ll explain how Nasser spent more than a month in prison until the whole village, me included, gave all of the money we could spare to pay an exorbitant fine to bring him home. During Christmastime, I feel like I’m listening to everyone talk about the Palestinian people and places I love as though they’re just characters in a story. I want to jump in with some facts. For a moment, I seriously consider creating a holiday-themed PowerPoint presentation, featuring pictures of Palestinians trying to travel through Israeli military checkpoints on their way to Bethlehem. Then, with that thought, I seriously consider banning myself from Christmas altogether.
“You can believe the donkey is coming,” my father points out, while we wait at a stoplight. “You just don’t want to.” Like most Quakers, my father believes in telling the truth as literally as possible.
Living in the Holy Land may not have brought be closer to Jesus, but it did familiarize me with donkeys. Tuwani is home to 150 people and 10 donkeys. These donkeys are not pets. They are pack animals, living garbage disposals, and transportation that run on table scraps. They’re useful, sure. But donkeys in Palestine occupy the same symbolic place as they do in the United States. They are asses. Once, I asked my neighbor Fadil if his donkey had a name.
“What?” said Fadil.
I repeated myself in halting Arabic. “What. Is. The. Name. Of. The. Donkey?”
Fadil looked confused for a moment. Then he started laughing. “George Bush!” he guffawed.
From the backseat of the car, I raise my voice and lay out my most persuasive argument. “Donkeys,” I declare, “are dirty. It is disgusting to have them in the place where we pray.” I know I am very right in this regard. Donkeys are dirty. I don’t hold this against them. When you are an animal, you pee and poop everywhere. Why wouldn’t you? You have no pants to take off. Your potential mates are not turned off by this behavior, but people certainly are. Or at least they should be. For people who do not live on farms, this dirtiness can be excused by the novelty of donkeys. But I spent three years living with them. I no longer understand the appeal.
Besides being dirty, donkeys are also very, very loud. The word “bray” does not convey the sound that donkeys make. Donkeys scream. They let out explosive, long, wheezing cries. To me, they seem to do it for no reason whatsoever, but my Palestinian neighbors had an explanation. They told me that donkeys bray because they have just seen Satan.
What really horrifies me about the thought of a donkey inside our meetinghouse is that I could never ever explain it to my Palestinian friends. In Tuwani, the tiny village mosque has been demolished by the Israeli army three times. Each time, the village has rebuilt it, and no donkey has ever stepped inside. After living in Palestine, I find most of our traditions undignified. The Christmas morning gift-giving materialist orgy, door-to-door caroling, our family’s tradition of singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus and blowing out candles – these things are strange. But bringing a dirty donkey to church? If I told my friends about this, they would lose all respect for Christianity, and for America. There is no explanation for a churchgoing donkey.
Dad parks the car. “That donkey is going to poop on the floor,” I say accusingly. My parents don’t answer. They have been ignoring me for days now. Since I arrived home for the holidays, I have been regressing. I am undergoing a metamorphosis. I am changing from an adult human being into a teenage cockroach. I feel strange back in the places of my childhood, changed by my travels.
My parents open the car doors and walk toward the meetinghouse. I follow behind them.
After some carols, the pageant begins. Small children dressed as sheep walk down the aisle and up to the stage. Mary and Joseph follow behind them. Joseph is wearing a brown sheet covered in a burlap tunic. Mary is wearing a blue bathrobe. A white lace tablecloth is draped over her head and shoulders. I wonder if this is what my Quaker community thinks the Jews of 1st -century Palestine wore. Is this what they think that Palestinians look like today?
Mary holds in her arms a tiny baby. This child, the youngest in the community, has the honor of playing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. But the baby is not the star of the show, because here comes Joseph and he is leading Angelo the donkey by a rope. Angelo is gray and furry. He has big brown eyes with long, luscious lashes. Like a good donkey put into an unnatural situation, he is wearing a donkey diaper designed to catch any waste he might feel the need to pass.
Joseph and Angelo stand in their appointed places. Behind them, children dressed as angels file in. Then Angelo does what donkeys do. He poops. He pees. The diaper proves inadequate.
I lean towards my mother and hiss, “I was right!”
A little girl dressed in a white sheet, a tinsel halo atop of her blonde curls, says loudly and clearly, “The donkey went to the bathroom.” Everyone laughs. I think to myself, “No. The donkey did not go to the bathroom. This donkey went to church.”
Angelo’s owner rushes over with a towel and the pageant continues. The children dressed as shepherds make their way to the stage. They give Angelo a wide berth as they walk past. And then I realize that I am laughing. I realize that I’m going to tell this story to my Palestinian friends and they’re going to laugh even harder than I am. I realize I’m glad that there is a poop stain on the floor. Suddenly, that donkey poop represents the messiness of life, the intrusions and indignities, and that shit is beautiful.
The notes of “Away in a Manager” tinkle out of the piano, and the kids start singing. I am singing too, a goofy grin on my face. All at once, I know how I would explain our Christmas traditions to my Palestinian friends. I would tell them: it’s good to be home.
Joy Ellison is a writer, activist, and scholar living in Chicago. They believe that storytelling is integral to healing, transformation, resistance, and survival. Their work has been published in Just Out, Chicago Literati, Racialicious, and Electronic Intifada. Joy is currently working on their first graphic novel, a timely, nonfiction account of the power of community set in a small Palestinian village called At-Tuwani. When not writing, Joy teaches college students to be rabble-rousers at DePaul University. Their work can be found athttp://jmellison.net