The story of food and love is an ancient story, both untold and told to death, and it's one we all participate in.
You don't have to be a Christian to be charmed by euphoric, expensive displays of Christmas lights, stockings and ornaments, and besides, who doesn't like candy canes and gift-giving? Advent calendars, mostly made for children, are used to count the days until Christmas. Some calendars offer chocolates and sweets along with their tiny vignettes of the nativity story.
Whether or not you observe the holidays, the spirit of celebration and anticipation is so pervasive that it's almost impossible not to partake. I was seven or eight when I first met "Santa", a swarthy middle-aged man with garlic breath, wearing a woolly beard and an oversized suit in the gym at Abu Dhabi's American Community School. He asked what I wanted for Christmas. I turned and ran.
Paraphernalia, props and jovial mascots aside, religious holidays in the western world are often spent at home, and frequently with family, even in non-religious families, because of the way the traditional school year and its holidays revolve around the Gregorian calendar. For this reason and others, the holiday season is difficult for some people. It can also be joyous.
When Eid al Adha and Christmas coincide, as they have in the recent past, there's a contagious festivity in the air that is unique to Abu Dhabi; moods are lifted, the air is at its lightest, and the population thins but also temporarily welcomes back an influx of Emirati residents studying abroad and visiting home for winter break.
Discussions of food in the realms of family love, platonic love and romantic love are all very different, although they deal essentially with the same central issues. It's easy to see how so many of us are conflicted on these subjects, and just as easy to see how so many of us are endeared to them. Food is highly emotive, and food and love are tightly connected. And when we are lucky, it addresses an instinctive need at a deep, emotional level. In early childhood, the sources of food and love are usually fused, and even for lucid, healthy adults, separating food from love isn't easy.
I've always loved the fact that Valentine's Day in Mexico, known as El Día del Amor y la Amistad (The Day of Love and Friendship), is an occasion not limited to the expression of affection for one's romantic partner, but also a day to show appreciation for friends. Trickiest of all are discussions on food and romantic love, and the topic is laden with pitfalls. Many people who believe the Garden of Eden was located somewhere in the Near East suggest that the true forbidden fruit was not an apple, but a pomegranate. Others believe it was a tomato. Some Muslims believe that it was a banana.
I grew up eating pomegranates daily, so when I spied them in the exotic fruit section of a Boston grocery store, during my college days, the price tag made my eyes cross. Four US dollars for a single pomegranate whose quality I couldn't even vouch for? Forget it. They subsequently became incredibly trendy, then passé, having been replaced by the acai berry, the goji berry, and probably a few other antioxidant-rich "exotic" fruits that are slipping my mind at the moment.
My loyalty to the pomegranate is not so easily replaced, though. The pomegranate is the passion fruit, also called the fruit of love. Hades tricked Persephone, the goddess of innocence, into eating pomegranate seeds, which forced her to retreat to the underworld for winter each year. Despite the pomegranate's reputation, it is actually the tomato, formerly believed to have aphrodisiac powers, that was called the apple of love: pomme d'amour. The Hungarians call tomatoes paradicsom, which means paradise, and the Italians call it pomodoro, meaning golden apple.
Recently, I met a family of Muslim Turkish immigrants living in California. Every Christmas, they decorate the pomegranate tree in their front garden with Turkish ornaments and nazars (those ubiquitous cobalt blue charms used to ward off the evil eye). The next summer, they sent me a dozen pomegranates from their tree. I used them to make pomegranate syrup to give away as Christmas and Eid gifts.
Early Arabic literature abounds with references to ways to food and romantic love, including The Perfumed Garden, by a 15th-century sheikh named Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi; the theologian and mystic Al Ghazali's Manners Relating to Eating and One Thousand and One Nights. I have a particular fondness for the arcane austerity and occasional hilarity of Al Ghazali's advice: "Eat nothing cooked unless it is well done; drink medicine only for a malady; eat only ripe fruit; and do not eat food without chewing it well."
In an ideal world, we'd all have enough of food and love in abundance, and both would be distributed freely and without conditions, every day of the year.