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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.
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?
For the younger generations, it can be a political statement. The Christmas tree (shajarat ˁeid almiilaad, شجرة عيد الميلاد) is seen as a symbol for a world many Arabs don’t have access to and only see on TV and social media, so they try to incorporate it into their life by decorating their homes with Christmas motifs. In this case, Christmas is not seen as a religious festival, but is more of a secular, international cultural phenomenon. Others celebrate it to show solidarity with their Christian co-nationals and appreciation for the diversity that different religions bring to Iraqi society. Finally, some Muslims honor Christmas as the day the Prophet Isa (the Muslim Arabic name of Jesus) was born. And of course, the message of joy and new beginnings usually associated with Christmas and the New Year appeals to many people regardless of their religion. The reasons behind the nationwide appeal of the Christmas holiday are explored in more depth by Deutsche Welle.
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.
On Christmas Day, friends and family visit each other and exchange wishes. The traditional meal on this occasion is harissa (هريسة), a soup with a thick consistency made of wheat and chicken meat. At the end of the meal, date-stuffed biscuits called kleikha (كليجة) are eaten. In front of the church, another bonfire is lit and the bishops say a mass while carrying a figure of the baby Jesus. He blesses one person with a touch. That person touches the next person, and so the touch passes around until all have felt the so-called “touch of peace.”
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.
People who are not Christian are also eager to celebrate, both to show appreciation and interest in their neighbors’ culture and also because many see Christmas as a joyful holiday where people can gather and spend time together. “When I lived in Lebanon, several Muslims told me that Christmas was their favorite holiday,” recalls NaTakallam staff member Mikaela Bell. “When I asked why, they said that most other holidays in Lebanon were celebrated only by one religious group, but that Christmas was for everyone.”
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.
Another really common decoration is the Christmas tree, which is seen both in the streets of the cities and also in private homes, even in Muslim families. The poinsettia flower (zaharat al-bonseita, زهرة البونسيتة) was originally imported from the West (it’s native to Mexico) but quickly became really popular in Lebanon as well and is sold in pots during the winter time. In Christian homes families also prepare and decorate a nativity scene. On Christmas Eve churches hold a midnight mass. Afterwards families gather together to eat. Gifts are given to children by their family members, although Baba Noel is also an appreciated Christmas icon.
Common foods that are eaten during this period are the French buche de Noel and the Lebanese meghli (مغلي) a rice pudding with spices and nuts, which is traditionally made to celebrate newborns in the family and during Christmas to celebrate Jesus’s birth. Want to try some? Franceline suggests this recipe for meghli, in English, from the Simply Lebanese blog.
Christmas is not an official holiday in the cradle of Christianity, but it is still widely celebrated by local Christian communities, Muslims, and foreign visitors alike, especially in Bethlehem (بيت لحم), where people come to visit the various places of worship dedicated to the different Christian communities. The oldest and biggest church in Palestine is the Orthodox church, which celebrates Christmas on January 7. Still, December 25 is the most popular day for celebrations. Nativity scenes (meghaarat al-miilaad, مغارة الميلاد, which literally means a “Christmas cave”) and Christmas trees are also common symbols for this celebration, but some believers recall the tradition of decorating cypress tree branches or hanging blessed olive tree branches in their homes.
Traditionally, Palestinian Christian families used to gather, eat homemade sweets alongside a cup of coffee and visit their friends and family. Another commonly eaten food during Christmas is maftoul (مفتول), a Palestinian couscous cooked in broth and eaten with meat, chickpeas and vegetables. Some families view Christmas as a celebration for children, and use this occasion to gift them clothes and toys.
In general, a lot of Palestinians today celebrate Christmas in a more humble and “private” way. Due to emigration and the ongoing conflicts, the Christian population in the land of Jesus’s birth is declining. Most sources agree that there are around 50,000 Christians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Around 2% of the West Bank’s population and less than 1% of Gaza’s population is Christian. They share common struggles with other non-Jewish communities, such as religious discrimination, attacks on holy sites and restrictions on religious practices. Recently, the Church of Saint Porphyrius was attacked in an Israeli strike claiming to target a Hamas command center, killing at least 18 people, Muslims and Christians, who were sheltering in the building.
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.
Those wishing to support Palestinians displaced by the war should consider this fundraiser by NaTakallam Language Partner Shahd Safi and two of her students. Shahd is a journalist and language teacher living in Gaza, and her family has been sheltering seven others who have all been displaced from their own homes. Please consider chipping in to support them.
If you’d like to learn Palestinian, Lebanese, or Iraqi Arabic — or several other dialects including MSA — while directly supporting displaced people, NaTakallam’s Language Partners are waiting! Sign up for a free trial and discover the joys of language learning with a private tutor, on your own schedule. Choose from 1.) language sessions in your choice of dialect, available for all levels, 2.) our unique Integrated Arabic Curriculum, suitable for committed learners, or 3.) our short Arabic for Professionals courses, perfect for advanced students. All Language Partners come from displaced backgrounds or struggling host communities. Yalla!
Want to learn a few phrases while you’re waiting for your next class? How about some Arabic terms of endearment, a few ways to say goodbye, or the meaning of “inshallah.” Or read about the meaning of the Palestinian keffiyeh and its traditional embroidery.
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.