Christmas in Morocco

Morocco had an abundance of holidays. There were religious ones, some, such as the Mouloud, not necessarily celebrated in other Muslim countries, moussems, Jewish holidays, Christian holidays, tourism events, and secular holidays. Since there were still a large number of French in the administration, especially the school system, the school year breaks for Moroccan kids often coincided with those that the French took. From a young person’s point of view, the country was a cornucopia of holidays, another one tumbling forth before the last was scarcely over!

A holiday in the market of either Missour or Midelt.
The King’s birthday in Rabat. Hassan II was an ardent golfer.
The Queen of the Cherry Festival, Sefrou.
The moussem of Moulay Bouchta.

Volunteers loved all the holidays. Time off provided opportunities to see more of Morocco, visit with other volunteers, or even go abroad. When I arrived in 1968, it was against Peace Corps rules to visit Europe, except for Spain. By the time I left, the new professional volunteers, with wealthy parents, were vacationing in Switzerland.

Those teaching English were the most favored, as they had long summer breaks. English teachers also had contact with many students, who invited the teachers into their homes when they could.

Moroccan religious holidays were special, and always involved invitations to eat in someone’s home, where the food was never better. Someone once asked the famous author and French cooking expert, Julia Child, where one could get a good French meal in New York City? Her answer: in someone’s home. I would give the same answer to tourists looking for good Moroccan food: in someone’s home. Good Moroccan restaurants were rare in the 1960s, though there were good restaurants serving French food. That said, whenever you ate in a Moroccan home, be it some little douar in the mountains or some fancy villa, the food was always great. Today there are probably many fine restaurants serving Moroccan food, but I would wager that few can match a good home cooked meal, especially one cooked for a special occasion.

The first major Christian holiday, in fact, the only Christian holiday that I ever actually celebrated in Sefrou, was Christmas in 1968. I had just moved into a medina house, shared with another volunteer, Gaylord Barr. We hadn’t done anything to it. The walls were two-tone blue and white with a little line separating them, which was a common Moroccan decorative scheme, and the electric bulbs were twenty feet high and provided little light. Later we fixed the lighting and whitewashed the walls to a warmer single tone, but at that time we had only fixed up a guest room on the roof. My cousin Denise, studying in Angers at the time, was coming to visit.

Suspense surrounded her visit. There were no cell phones then, nor did I have easy access to any phone. I think I was in the country for two years before I ever made a phone call. Denise was to take the train, which involved crossing three international borders, three national train systems, and a ferry-boat. She planned the trip in France, and told me when she would arrive, but neither she nor I was sure that either of us would be there that December evening at the Fes train station. Gaylord and I picked her up in the Jeep, never worrying much if she would be there. We were young and took everything for granted.

The cedar in the courtyard.

We had decided to put up a Christmas tree. Our Moroccan neighbors knew about this strange pagan custom and were nonplused. Gaylord was able, through his CT director, Si Kamir, a really nice fellow, to get a small cedar. The word small does not quite do it justice. I don’t remember how we got it into that house, but it couldn’t have been easy, since the interior stairway made a right angle where the WC was located. Once inside, the tree touched the ceiling over our courtyard. We mounted it, strung some paper decorations, fruit, and strings of popcorn. There were no lights, fortunately, as the tree got drier by the day and might have caught fire. The popcorn got stale and the oranges and tangerines got moldy in the damp, clammy air of the house. One would never have called it a beautiful Christmas tree.

This year’s tree in my home in Youngstown, decorated by my wife.

After Denise arrived, we took a trip to Marrakech and Ouarzazate, returning via Risanni, with excursions to visit Meknes, Moulay Idriss and Volubilis, Rabat, and Telouet.

Denise and Gaylord on the roof in Sefrou.

For Denise, it was a real tour, and for Gaylord and me, the south was a new experience. On the way, we saw volunteers Bert Bokern in Meknes, and Marc Miller in Rabat, but otherwise we were just tourists, riding CTM buses and grands taxis, with sharing them with Moroccans going about their daily business.

Denise, Gaylord, and Bert on the forum of Volubilis.
Denise in Marrakech.
At Telouet.

The trip was fun, tiring, and uneventful, except for one stop in the south that had no accommodations. Gaylord and I were forced to share a bed. In the middle of the night, Denise, frightened by noises in her room, ran noisily to ours and ended up sleeping between us!

We never celebrated another Christian holiday. Neither of us actively practiced our faiths, and the local Catholic Church in the ville nouvelle was closing down, eventually to be sold for other uses. In 1969, the local Protestant missionary left.

The following Christmas was spent in Gibraltar, then isolated by a land and sea blockade imposed by Spain. One could only enter by air or by ferry boat from Tangier. We flew in from Tangier, and flew back again.

The old DC-3 that took us to Gibraltar.
Marty, Gaylord, Eileen, and Don on the runway in Gibraltar. The runway had crossing guards as a street cut across it.
In Gibraltar, 1969. Gaylord, Marty, Eileen, and Don.
At the airport in Gibraltar, with Ginny and Louden Kiracofe.

Gibraltar was quiet, and there was little to do. Christmas was, after all, a family holiday. It was a disappointment. We had good company, but there was little going on.

I spent my last Christmas as a volunteer waiting for a close friend to return to Morocco. We would cross the Algerian Sahara together in early 1971, but that is the subject of a future blog post.

In the large cities, where there were more volunteers, and, in Rabat, where the Peace Corps administrative office was, and where volunteers were always passing through, there were real Christmas parties. In Sefrou, huddled by the Aladdin heater, I listened to the BBC World Service, and Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America, always an interesting commentary on the customs and mores of home.

Meanwhile, at home in America, my large Italian-American family was celebrating Christmas Eve, going to midnight mass, eating a meal with seven different fishes, and playing cards till the wee hours. And though I loved being with them all, I never wished I were back at home. Morocco was my home then.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

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