The Mahrajan – An Annual Festival of Food, Family and Tradition
Sunday, August 10, 2014, marks the annual Mahrajan, an event held at Oglebay Park's
Site One. The Mahrajan celebrates the heritage and tradition of the members of Wheeling's Our Lady of Lebanon Church
. Now in its eighty-first year, the Wheeling Mahrajan began in 1933 as an effort to raise funds to rebuild the church which had burned to the ground in 1932. Though the major restoration efforts were completed years ago, the church's steeple was not replaced until 2013, more than eighty years after it was destroyed by the fire. Today, the Mahrajan continues as a major fund raising event for the church and is an event anticipated by many throughout West Virginia and its surrounding states. More importantly, it's a way for families to come together and celebrate their heritage.
When I was a child, I would go to the Mahrajan with my grandfather. Back then, most, if not all, of the food was prepared by the ladies of the church and was simply amazing. While you are still able to partake in traditional dishes like kibbee, tabbouli, laham mishwee (lamb shish kabobs), falafel, rice, stuffed grape leaves, baklava and other lebanese pastries, the majority of the food is no longer made by church members and their families as age has slowed and reduced the numbers of cooks and the popularity of the festival requires ever increasing amounts of food. You will, however, still be able to see several generations of families, including mine, working to preserve the church which has been so important in the lives of our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
When I moved back to Wheeling a few years ago, I went to the Mahrajan to have lunch and possibly visit with some of my extended family for a little while. That intended one or two hour excursion turned into an all-day event as my cousins quickly put me to work. I looked around me that day and saw my cousins, some of whom had traveled from Virginia and Columbus, just to work for the church that meant so much to their parents and grandparents. I saw an old high school/college friend working with his family, frying the Kibbee that my family was serving. Before that day, I had no idea he or his family were affiliated with Our Lady of Lebanon in any way. It dawned on me that day. The Mahrajan is more than a church festival; it's an event which brings together families and attempts to preserve the traditions of now-fading generations. Needless to say, I have worked at each Mahrajan since that day.
This year's Mahrajan will be a hard one for my family because it will be the first without Aunt Evelyn, also known as "Josie," who passed rather suddenly earlier this year. Aunt Evelyn was a strong, but mighty woman who faced, in my opinion, unspeakable and unfair hardships in her life. However, instead of becoming bitter and resentful, she was the epitome of kindness and forgiveness. Don't get me wrong, she could put you in your place in an instant if you needed it, but never did so in a cruel or unfair manner. Her "zingers" were legendary, but you never, ever doubted that she loved you immensely and was only doing what she thought was best for you. Hers is not my story to tell. I wish I could because I think it would provide a lesson to so many on what is important in life.
However, I was fortunate to gain her as my confidant when I moved back to Wheeling, often stopping by her workplace to chat and, more often than not, pick up a little life advice. Although well past retirement age, she worked full-time until her death. On one of my last visits with her, I was the recipient of one of her "interventions." After telling me in the way only she could what she thought I needed to do with my life, she added on the priceless and cherished, "And if anyone has a problem with that, you tell them to come and talk to me! I will deal with them!" Anyone who knew her would know that was a threat to be reckoned with. I wish she was still here to make good on that threat. Sometimes we need the sanity of someone else's experience to place things into perspective. Her generation's ability to provide needed guidance without being cruel or demeaning is something that I fear is getting lost in today's society. To me, the Mahrajan is a way to preserve the value, teachings and traditions of generations gone by.
I will be working at the Mahrajan this coming Sunday alongside my extended family in memory of Aunt Evelyn, my grandfather, my sita and countless other family members. We will be there acting as cashiers at the food line, working at the pastry table and likely at several other booths. So if you are looking for something to do on Sunday, come join us at the Mahrajan. Not only will you be able to enjoy some terrific food, traditional music and dance, but you might learn about the heritage of so many generations of Wheeling residents as well.