Christmas in Algiers

One thing I’ve learned about living in non-Christian countries is that if you want Christmas, you have to create it for yourself. In Algiers, come December, there’s no “All I Want for Christmas” blasting from grocery store speakers, no twinkling lights on street poles, and certainly no falling snow. But all those cozy and fun things are possible to create oneself and this year, I’d say I did a decent job of soaking in that holiday spirit despite living in a sunny Mediterranean city in a Muslim country.

As I’ve mentioned before – like when I was Searching for Christmas in the Holy Land – even though I’m an atheist married to a Jew, come December I long for the cozy yuletide festivities of Christmas, while also often experiencing That Certain Christmas Sadness.

This year, festivities started with some fun diplomatic parties, as I mentioned in my last post. Then, I put up our Christmas tree and decorations in early December and have made it a point to get lots of time in front of the tree, often with the yule log “burning” on our TV. “Is it getting too hot in here with the fire?” is a joke I’ve made at least five times in the past month.

Adam’s been practicing Christmas songs on his flute during the past month, even though it’s still pulling teeth to get him to watch a Christmas movie with me. This year I actually skipped watching a few of my cozy Christmastime favorites such as the 1994 version of Little Women and Love, Actually because there’s so much good new Christmas content on Netflix (which is just super impressive considering we’ve been in a 2-year pandemic). Highlights included Last Christmas, Lovehard, and the Norwegian series Home for Christmas where the main character sometimes gets from point A to B on a scooter-meets-sled contraption, just gliding along the icy, twinkling streets. Speaking of home for Christmas, last year Adam and I were with my family in Michigan and so I’m a little homesick to not be there, but I know we’ll be there next year, as we’ll be living just a short plane ride away in Princeton, New Jersey.

We also enjoyed a holiday party at the (still empty) Ambassador’s residence at our Embassy, and a lovely concert by the Danish cellist Toke Moldrup in the Notre Dame d’Afrique, a famous church (located across from the Vatican Embassy) that sits on a peak overlook all of Algiers.

And for the most Christmas-y activity of the year: After a two year COVID hiatus Adam and I hosted our 5th Annual Holiday Spirit Cocktail Contest Party and it was the biggest and best yet. I’ve previously blogged about How to Host a Cocktail Contest Party, and that post has gained a lot of traction lately, which makes me happy because I assume other people might be hosting fun cocktail parties of their own, all around the world. For our most recent party, well, we took advantage of our spacious house and that, after two-and-a-half years, we can call many people here friends, and had about 80 (fully vaccinated) guests, which I realize sounds a little crazy. Who wants 80 people in their house? Well, Adam, for one. I made almost all of the food, except for ordering in 90 bourek (Algerian egg rolls) and a beautiful Christmas cake and cake pops. I made vast quantities of hot and cheesy artichoke dip, Emily’s famous stuffed mushrooms, deviled eggs, veggies and dip, Camembert en croute, and pumpkin ravioli with brown butter and sage. It was essentially catering a small wedding, and sadly I didn’t make enough food. One thing that really helped, especially in those two manic hours before guests arrived, is that we hired two kitchen helpers who were total pros, despite me not being able to communicate with them outside of pantomime. They sliced bread and vegetables and and plated apps and then collected plates and cups once the party kicked off. My Algerian bestie Selma was also on hand to help with some translation and last minute prep. Two hours before the party started she said “Em, go take a shower and get ready now. You won’t have time to do it later.” What a revelation: Being fully dressed and made up an hour before guests arrive! Everyone needs a Selma.

She also made this video reel of the party!

This year’s cocktail contest theme was “travel” and the directive was to transport us to somewhere else, as most of us haven’t been able to travel as much as we would have liked during these past two years. Our Tunisian/German friends took home the gold with a drink that touched on some of their previous posts, including Yemen and Mali, and contained a splash of Hamoud, the beloved local Algerian lemon-lime soda.

The best part of the party was the incredible Aida Oulmou and her Garage Band, performing live on our patio, bringing down the house with All I Want for Christmas is You, and Last Christmas as well as some Algerian hits. During the band’s intermission, we tried to get some Christmas carols going, led by Adam on the flute. Me as the carol-master is not a great idea as I can’t carry a tune, but still: A group of dozens singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is good in any key.

Christmas Eve we had a very fun dinner at the home of my colleagues, which ended with another Christmas singalong and dance party which then turned into an Algerian dance party (Algerian music and dancing are extremely fun, btw). Christmas day, we woke up to 60 degree sunshine and blue skies and went for a long walk Algiers’ premier creepy zoo and and park. Then, I made some holiday favorites for lunch – including stuffed mushrooms and camenbert en croute as I didn’t get a single bite of food at the party. We watched Meet Me in St. Louis and Home Alone and had a long video chat with my family in Michigan. There was no opening of presents because Adam and I already got each other art from the super talented Algerian artist, Billel Decherani (bold colors with with strong Mastise vibes).

Today, we’ll honor the American Jewish tradition of getting Chinese food for Christmas.

And then… we’re going to Tanzania for the New Year! We had started planning a South Africa trip but then South Africa didn’t look like a viable vacation option thanks to the new Omicron COVID variant. So, Adam suggested Tanzania and we’re about to have a once-in-a-lifetime safari vacation.

Anyways, making your own version of Christmas — in a country with limited Christmas vibes — is totally doable. It doesn’t necessarily require having 80 people in your home. But that doesn’t hurt.

Merry Christmas from Algiers,

Emily

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