From Holy Land to Advent centrepiece

Jackie Macadam traces the journey of a Christmas crib, from Holy Land olive grove to an Edinburgh shop in the December Issue of Life & Work.

The Christmas crib
The Christmas crib

The old tree has been growing in an olive grove on the West Bank of the Jordan River for generations. Twisted and gnarled, thanks to careful pruning of wizened branches it still produces the olives the grove was known for.

Pruning has to be done regularly to keep the trees at their best, but being precious olive wood, nothing is wasted.

The wood taken from the olive tree had a long journey to make – all the way to Edinburgh and beyond in fact.

Hope, peace and tranquility

“The olive tree has a huge symbolic value for Palestinians,” says Carol Morton, one of the volunteers who works at Hadeel, the Edinburgh shop that sells Palestinian Fair Trade goods.

“Our nativity display was almost certainly born when an olive tree, somewhere in the hills in the northern West Bank, needed to be pruned. In the past some of the carvers have even been reduced to buying wood from trees which have been uprooted and destroyed for settlement building.

“The sets are beautiful, in different sizes but all a golden honey tone with a darker grain swooping round the carved cave and the holy figures inside, and it is into these that our olive tree is going to be carved.

“Olive trees represent hope, peace and tranquility traditionally, and the pruning of the olive groves is done annually. The wood from the pruned trees is collected and transported through the check points from the northern parts of the West Bank and southwards towards Bethlehem where they will lie and season until they are ready to be carved.”

After the wood from the tree has lain and weathered, and has passed its inspection, some of the wood will then be selected by workmen for its grain and size and then, using that, it’s decided what it would be best suited to make.

“After the initial selection, most of the chosen pieces will be put through a machine in a small factory used by quite a few carvers to take the harsh upper coats and bark off, and take the piece of wood down to a rough shape and size that will be more manageable for the hand carvers to work with,” says Carol.

“There are around 60 different hand carvers who work to produce the items we sell here in the shop.

“They work out of small studios in houses, cellars, even rooms underneath natural caves. Their tools can be handed down from father to son as are their skills.

“Our nativity scene will take days of steady and careful carving to produce. Cutting, smoothing, polishing, finishing – it’s all hand done and each piece is a little different from the next as a result.

“The artists don’t just work on nativity scenes – they carve a variety of beautiful olivewood pieces, including crosses, ornaments and even experiment in special designs for Hadeel, such as the triquetra that the Very Rev Dr David Lunan gave out as gifts during his Moderatorial year.

“Another new design, developed for the shop on Iona, is an olive wood heart with ‘Iona’ carefully etched on it. Olive wood hearts are sometimes used like a holding cross, especially for those who are not of the Christian faith. People in distress or difficult times find great comfort from the beauty and warmth of the natural wood.

From Israel to Edinburgh

The finished piece will be boxed and packed carefully and will then begin its journey through Israel, across the world to arrive in George Street in the heart of Edinburgh. It will be in a container with many other pieces from a variety of crafts groups and they’ll be destined to go to outlets across the UK.

“Working in this trade is very hard for Palestinians. Exporting, especially to Fair Trade businesses like ours, has become an essential part of their marketing strategy. Unfortunately, however, due to restrictions imposed on them, Palestinians are not allowed to simply export their goods directly, not even by mail.

“They need either to go through an agent who can move the goods out through Israel or for smaller orders, know the rare person who has a permit to enter Israel.

Carol has close ties with the Palestinians she works with.

Carol’s husband was a Church of Scotland minister, the Rev Colin Morton. He was appointed minister at St. Andrew’s Church, Jerusalem, and Director of the Hospice (now Guest House) in 1988. They stayed for nearly ten years.

“The Christians there are Palestinians, so we did a lot of work with them,” she explains, adding: “Colin developed partnerships with the local Anglican Diocese and I helped organise a charity and Fair Trade shop, Sunbula. My experience of work as Regional Adviser with Traidcraft in the UK was invaluable. Sunbula’s and now Hadeel’s partners were not only co-operatives like the olive carvers, but almost more importantly, women’s organisations and those for people with special needs.

“Churches and other voluntary organisations help to set up projects to market products for women, whose main skill was traditional Palestinian cross stitch embroidery. Women had to become breadwinners when their husbands and sons were imprisoned, disabled, deported, even killed. For many of them it was the first time in their lives they’d had to take on that role. Embroidery was something which required no expensive infrastructure or machinery, and allowed women to carry on working in the field as well as caring for children.”

On its arrival in the UK, the packing container that holds the nativity pieces will be inspected by UK customs and Hadeel will get an import bill for the goods so that they can be released and unloaded.

Once received by Hadeel, it will be displayed in the shop or delivered to online and mail order customers from all over the world.

“When you think about it, it’s an incredible journey, all the way from a tree growing in the warm soil of the Holy Land to a small shop window here in winter-grey Edinburgh, touching so many people on the way,” says Carol.

The Hadeel shop is at 123 George Street, Edinburgh.

This is an abridged version of a feature from December's Life and Work. Subscribe or buy