It was an ordinary tabletop Christmas tree, the kind favored by renters in cramped apartments, like the one I was visiting. Green and symmetrical, threaded with a strand of blinking white lights, the little tree lent a cheerful air to the drab living room. But when I spotted it, I stared, perplexed.
I was at the modest housing complex near Portland, Oregon, that December day to visit Buthainah, a refugee from Iraq. We’d known each other since her arrival in the United States, when her resettlement agency made me her family’s volunteer “cultural navigator,” to ease their adjustment to American life. Five months and countless cups of tea later, our relationship, once tentative and awkward, had transformed into a close bond.
Short and plump, with a ready smile, Buthainah (boo-thane-ah) projected a cheerful, motherly authority. She rarely allowed the losses she had suffered — her husband, her homeland, her extended family — to impede her twin goals of making a new life for her four children and ensuring their academic excellence. But I couldn’t help being aware of the sorrow she tried to suppress, and the ache of displacement.
I knew, too, of the solace and strength my friend found in her faith, praying five times each day, visiting the mosque when she could find a ride, celebrating the holy days that kept her children connected to the culture they had left behind. Inside the sparsely decorated apartment, two items adorned the living room wall, emblems of family fidelity — an American flag and a framed verse from the Koran.
So what was the Christmas tree doing in her living room?
Buthainah embraced me and kissed my cheeks in greeting. When I gestured toward the tree, she laughed at my expression of surprise. An Iraqi friend had brought it, she told me.
“But . . . your religion?” I asked hesitantly.
Her dark eyes opened wide. “No religion, no, no!” she said, explaining that in Baghdad, Christmas trees were common, and the final week of December was a time for fireworks, feasting, and communal celebration. “Muslim, Christian, anyone,” she said. Her smile slipped as she added a single word: “Before.”
We were silent for a moment, and then she brightened. “And now, in America, the same!” She approached the little tree and frowned. “But I have no — ” and she mimed hanging an ornament.
I am Jewish, but making do at Christmastime was a regular theme in my favorite historical novels from childhood, like the Little House books. I always relished descriptions of plucky families contriving decorations from humble household materials such as popcorn, apples, and scraps of cloth and ribbon.
“Do you have scissors?” I asked. “And paper?”
Recognizing the English words for two crucial kindergarten supplies, Buthainah’s 6-year-old son jumped up to fetch them.
When he returned, I showed him how to cut strips of paper, then fashion them into chains. “Ah!” Buthainah exclaimed, watching me drape one on the tree. She went to the closet and emerged with a bundle of used wrapping paper imprinted with golden stars. Carefully cutting one out, she set it among the branches of the tree, where it shone among the lights.
I could almost see Ma Ingalls smiling in solidarity.
That afternoon, as we sipped milky cardamom-spiced tea and constructed homemade ornaments together, I tried to imagine the vanished Christmases of Buthainah’s Baghdad, citywide celebrations that she was conjuring today with a single tree. I thought, too, about the traditions my own ancestors brought to this country, anchoring themselves to their roots even as they started over in a new land.
The little tree glowed in the early twilight, and I smiled. A Jew and a Muslim decorating a Christmas tree: not the setup to a joke, but the beginning of an American story.Kate Haas is a writer and freelance editor in Portland, Oregon. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.