Christmas in the Arab World

Christmas in Beirut, Lebanon
Christmas in the Arab world is an important holiday despite being tied to a minority religion. Find out more about how it is celebrated in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Despite being the holiday of a minority religion in the Middle East, Christmas (ˁeid almiilaad, عيد الميلاد) is officially recognized in five Arab countries — Syria, Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq — and is celebrated to some extent throughout the region. Join us for a deeper dive into special Christmas traditions in three Arab countries.

Iraq (عراق)

In 2018, Christmas was declared a public holiday in Iraq, and that holiday was made permanent this year. That said, the country has had Christian presence for centuries — in fact, it is estimated that the Christian community in Iraq is among the oldest in the Christian world. Christians believe that Abraham was born in the ancient city of Ur, which was located in what it is now southern Iraq. Today, most Iraqi Christians are Catholic, including the Chaldean Rite, the Syrian Rite, the Latin Rite and the Armenian Rite. The other Christians belong to the Nestorian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Armenian Church. These churches are scattered all over the cities of Iraq.

Over the course of its history, the Christian presence has been more or less tolerated by the country’s (mostly Muslim) rulers, but most sources agree that since 2003, after the US’s invasion of Iraq and the consequent rise of extremist groups such as ISIS, Christians, alongside other religious minorities, have faced threats and persecutions. Sources estimate that the current Christian population in Iraq consists of between 300,000 to 200,000 thousand people: an estimated 5% of the Iraqi population. This is a huge decline compared to the 1.5 million Christians who were living in Iraq according to a government survey done in 1987. Many of them have emigrated to other countries. So how is it possible that Christmas celebrations are so popular in Iraqi cities?

The most common representation of Christmas in Iraq is the decorated Christmas tree, which can be seen in shopping malls, hotels and restaurants or in the main streets of big cities. The Christmas tree is more commonly known as the “New Year’s tree” there, and so it is not strictly associated with Christianity. Santa Claus (known in Arabic as بابا نوئل, Baba No’el) is also associated with the New Year (al-sina al-jadiid, السنة الجديدة) because he brings gifts like new clothes. Actual religious symbols such as the cross or Nativity representations are not seen as often in the streets, except in areas where a lot of Christians live.

Of course, Christmas remains very much a religious holiday for Iraq’s Christian communities. On Christmas Eve, Chaldean Christian families gather and hold candles while one of the children reads aloud the story of the birth of Jesus in Syriac, the language of liturgy for Assyrians and Chaldean Christians. After the reading, everyone sings over a bonfire of thorn bushes. Tradition says that if the thorns burn completely and turn to ash, the upcoming year will be a lucky and prosperous one. Afterwards, believers jump over the ashes three times and make a wish.

Iraqi Christians gather for a bonfire of thorn bushes.

Lebanon (لبنان)

With around 30% percent of the population being Christian, Christmas is big in Lebanon. The 18 different Christian communities present in the country also bring a lot of diversity to their Christmas celebrations. A lot of these communities celebrate Christmas on December 25, but the Armenian community celebrates on January 6 instead.

The festive atmosphere actually starts at the beginning of December. NaTakallam Language Partner Franceline Planche explains how, on December 4, Lebanese Christians celebrate Saint Barbara’s Day (ˁeid al-barbaara, عيد البربارة). Barbara fled from her father, a pagan king, but was eventually martyred. Because she disguised herself in order to flee, children will dress up in costumes and masks and go from house to house. This leads some to compare Saint Barbara’s Day to Halloween, but Franceline stresses that the holiday actually kicks off the Christmas season.

People also mark this day by planting wheat seeds in small containers. The seeds will sprout just in time for Christmas ready to be placed under the Christmas tree or beside nativity scenes. The wheat has a double meaning: it connects to the story of Saint Barbara, who escaped from her father, a pagan king, by running through a field of wheat which grew taller to cover her, and it also represents rebirth, directly referring to the birth of Christ.

Palestine (فلسطين)

Because of the war on Gaza, Palestinians have agreed to cancel any non-liturgical celebrations of Christmas this year, but one Lutheran church in Bethlehem did set up a nativity scene — with a twist. The Christ child, wrapped in a keffiyeh, lies amidst the rubble of a destroyed building, representing the countless children who have been buried under the rubble of Gaza. At the same time, it reminds us that the original Christmas story took place in an occupied country — and thus maybe this scene can also be a reminder to hope.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alice Zanini is a copywriting intern at NaTakallam. She is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and Middle Eastern studies. Her research focus is on sociopolitical and sociolinguistic issues in modern Turkey and the Persian-speaking world.

ABOUT THE EDITOR: Mikaela Bell is a freelance editor and content writer with a background in anthropology and linguistics. An American based in France, she is also fond of reading, cooking, studying languages, fibercrafts and Irish stepdance.

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