Christmas day dinner in the ’30s melded cultures and traditions

Everyone in the eastern Arab world looks forward to this delicious shortbread often made on holidays either at home or at local bakeries. | Habeeb Salloum photo

The turkey in the oven was almost ready and Mother had just finished making a tray of baklawa and ghurayba cookies. Now, she was busy cleaning the house for our Christmas dinner guests.

Christmas in the mid–1930s was a busy time on our family farm in southern Saskatchewan.

Albert Hattum and his family had been invited and Mother was getting help from her children with household chores. We swept, scrubbed and washed the floors and helped prepare the meal before washing and putting on our new clothes.

Despite the snow falling outside and the cold Saskatchewan winter winds, we were cozy and excited waiting for our visitors and Mother’s feast. Although the Hattums were Muslim, they had come to celebrate Christmas with us.

This was our tradition back home in Syria. Those celebrating the holiday invited those who did not, to enjoy a festive meal in the spirit of friendship.

Christmas was a time of getting together with family and friends far and wide, and this continued with the Syrian immigrants in southern Saskatchewan.

Our guests would be staying a few days, which for us made the holiday more special.

There was no Arab Christian church where we lived in southern Saskatchewan, so our parents relied on their own religious traditions to teach their children. We also learned the stories of the Bible from Mother’s tales.

It was the same for the Hattums. There was no mosque and their children also relied on the tales from their parents. As well, being courteous and friendly and treating other people as equals were part of their tradition.

Both families had to rely on what they knew about their own religion and instill ideas of living in harmony and respect in their children.

Dad was umo or uncle to the Hattum children and Albert was umo to us. Mother was khaltee or aunt to the Hattum children and we called Albert’s wife khaltee to make us feel like one big family.

We heard a shout through our farmhouse door, “Jirji. Shams. We are here,” as Albert Hattum announced his family’s arrival.

It was followed by a Merry Christmas as he and his family came into the coal-stove warmth of our house. The eight Salloum children lined up for kisses or pats on the head and could hardly wait to begin playing with the Hattum children.

Mother was back and forth getting the meal ready to serve. The aroma of the rice-stuffed turkey lured us to the table before Mother had a chance to say “taffaddalu,” come and sit down, dinner is ready.

It was a feast of turkey and a half dozen Arab and Canadian side dishes prepared by Mother that we ate until we were more than full. Just when we thought that there was no room left, Mother brought out the syrup-drenched crispy baklava, a phyllo dough stuffed with walnuts and melt-in-the-mouth ghurayba shortbread cookies.

Relaxing after dinner, Dad and Albert discussed the world and its problems. To emphasize each point, Albert would recite a line of poetry from the works of famous Arab poets or an event in Arab history.

He was illiterate, but like most of the Arabs of his time, was well-versed in the literature of the Arabs.

At times, Mother would break into the conversation with lines of poetry or prose that she recalled from the oral tradition of her family.

It was a fulfilling Christmas day for both our families.

Rice Stuffed Turkey

  • 10-12 lb. turkey, cleaned and washed 4.5 to 5.5 kg
  • 4 tbsp. lemon juice 60 mL
  • 3 tsp. salt 15 mL
  • 1/2 c. butter, melted 227 g
  • 1/2 lb. beef sausage, cut into small pieces 227 g
  • 3 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 tbsp. finely chopped fresh coriander leaves 60 g
  • 1 hot pepper, seeded then very finely chopped
  • 3 c. hot water 750 mL
  • 1 1/2 c. white rice, rinsed 280 mL
  • 1/2 c. dried cranberries 60 g
  • 1/2 c. blanched almonds, slightly toasted 70 g
  • 1 tsp. dried rosemary 1.3 g
  • 1 tsp. dried sage 1.3 g
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme 2 g
  • 1 tsp. black pepper 2.6 g
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon 2.6 g
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger 2 g
  • 4 tbsp. liquid honey 85 g

Rub turkey inside and out with a mixture of the lemon juice and two teaspoons of the salt, then set aside.

In a saucepan, melt four tablespoons of the butter, and saute sausage over medium heat for five minutes.

Add onions, garlic, coriander leaves and hot pepper and saute for eight more minutes.

Add remaining teaspoon of salt, 1 1/2 cups of the water, rice, cranberries, almonds, rosemary and half of the following: sage, thyme, pepper, cinnamon and ginger.

Thoroughly mix to complete the stuffing.

Bring to a boil and then turn heat to low. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool before stuffing turkey.

Preheat oven to 325 F (165 C). Stuff turkey, including the neck, then sew openings closed. Pour 1/2 cup water into the roaster and place the turkey in it.

Make a basting by combining the remaining hot water, sage, thyme, pepper, cinnamon, ginger and remaining butter. Baste the turkey and cover.

Bake covered for two and a half hours, basting every 30 minutes and then turn turkey over. Baste and bake covered for two and half hours or until turkey is well cooked, basting every 30 minutes (if basting juice finishes, baste from pan juices).

Mix honey with about two tablespoons boiling water, baste turkey and bake uncovered for five minutes.

Ghurayba (Syrian Shortbread)

Everyone in the eastern Arab world looks forward to this delicious shortbread often made on holidays either at home or at local bakeries.

  • 1 1/2 c. butter 340 g
  • 1 3/4 c. confectioner’s sugar 220 g
  • 1 tsp orange blossom water (mazahar) 5 mL
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 3 c. flour 375 g
  • 40 blanched almonds

Place butter, 1 1/2 cups of the confectioner’s sugar, orange blossom water and egg yolk in a blender and blend for one minute. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add flour while mixing with fingers until smooth dough is formed.

Form dough into 40 balls, a little smaller than a walnut. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and flatten slightly to about 1/2-inch (1.27 cm) thickness. Press an almond on each piece and bake in a 300 F (150 C) preheated oven for 20 minutes or until bottoms turn light brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Sprinkle with the remaining confectioner’s sugar and serve or store. Makes 40 pieces.

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