Wishing for a Merry Christmas period and a safe, if not Happy, New Year, the Arab world celebrates Christmas 2011-2012, in its own distinct way.
On Christmas Day, we remind ourselves that the Arab Middle East is the birthplace of Christianity and home to the world's most ancient Christian denominations. Here's a scan of Christmas around the Middle East, as marked by the minority Christian Arab communities distributed around the region to varying degrees of concentration, from Lebanon to Egypt and even some of the Gulf states. Christmas in 2011 is widely celebrated or at least commemorated by many of the region's Muslims too, reflecting the global trend by an increasing number of non-Christians to partake in the holidays.
Christmas is observed in some Middle Eastern countries, by local peoples as well as by expatriates. How do these some 10 million Christian 'Arabs' living in the Middle East mark Christmas, with most living in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine? Christmas visits smaller Arab Christian populations in Jordan, Iraq, and even some of the Gulf states.
A Middle East Holiday
Jesus Christ was born in the modern day Middle East within historical Palestine, or the Holy Land. The precise day of Jesus's birth, is unknown. Early in the 4th century, the Western Christian Church first placed Christmas on December 25, a date later adopted also in the East. Theories behind this selection include that it falls exactly nine months after the Christian celebration of the conception of Jesus.
The original date of the celebration in Eastern Christianity was January 6, in connection with Epiphany (baptism at the River Jordan), and that is still the date of the celebration for the Armenian Christians. Coptic Christians mark Christmas at the later time of January 7 in line with the new date of Eastern Christianity. Ethiopia and Russia, to name a few, celebrate Christmas, both as a Christian feast and as a public holiday, according to the Julian calendar (now 13 days behind the Gregorian version) on what in the Gregorian calendar is Jan.7.
Christmas is widely celebrated December 25 in the Middle East as a religious and cultural holiday. This feast closes the Advent season and initiates the twelve days of Christmastide.
The trappings of West and East: Western crosses local Middle Eastern fare
Christmas in the Middle East is increasingly commemorated according to the Western habits, so not altogether unlike Christmas of America or Europe. People decorate trees, though they retain idiosyncratic tastes in decorating their Christmas tree. Some fix it up in exclusively gold, some in red, and some have it multi-colored.
On the eve of Christmas, Turkey is taken, while on the day itself, usually rice with lamb is the feast food. Again, even with food, many Arab families have adopted traditional western holiday customs in combination with Middle Eastern traditions. A curious combination of indigenous habit with Western practice preside.
The Christmas feast can consist of chicken, rice and Kubbeh- made of crushed and cooked wheat - or burghul mixed with onion, meat, salt and pepper. Mughly, a pudding topped with crushed almonds and walnuts, is prepared whenever a child is born in the family during the Christmas season. It is offered to the family members and also to the people who visit the newborn.
Lebanon's Caves (Not Jeita Grotto)
Lebanon is home to the most sizable proportion of Christian indigenous peoples in respect of the whole population.
The largest Church is the Maronite Church, which traces its origins to a 4th Century Syrian hermit, St Maron. The Church united with the Catholic Church in 1736, rendering Maronites, Maronite Catholics, although it retains its own practices.
The baby Jesus cribs crafted in a 'cave' rather than stable become the focus of prayer and visitations for the people in the house and their guests. These cribs are used to harvest crops grown on cotton wools leading up to Christmas. Early December, Lebanese Christians spend the Advent period setting up cribs in the sitting room of their houses where they entertain seasonal guests.
A typical Christmas dinner on the Eve includes turkey, roasted duck, Lebanese salad (Tabouleh), and sweets such as honey cake and Buche De Noel, or a Christmas log. While the family attends midnight mass, Papa Noel, or Santa Claus, enters the house bearing gifts. The morning of Christmas is an occasion for visiting friends and neighbors. Offerings for the guests include sugared almonds, liqueur and coffee.