A Syrian man dressed as Santa Claus entertains orphans at the Mar Takla monastery in the Christian village of Maalula on December 23, 2011. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Replace ‘Merry Christmas’ with ‘Meelad Majeed’, turkey with the lamb-rice dish ‘kibbeh’ and carolling with the traditional dabkeh dance – and have yourself a merry Middle Eastern Christmas!

The Middle East is the cradle of the world’s largest religions and home to about 12 million Christians.

Despite a volatile political landscape, Christmas in the region is considered a time for family and goodwill. The season’s traditions are as varied as the countries they are celebrated in, with each custom carried forth to the next generation.

Read on to discover Christmas traditions in the Middle East.

Christmas in Bethlehem

As the widely-regarded birthplace of Jesus Christ and at the centre of Christianity, Bethlehem sees as many as three Christmas eves celebrated in its vicinity – by Protestant and Catholic churches, Greek Orthodox and Syrian churches, and the American church.

It is not uncommon for all three Christmas Eve services to go on in different sections of the church, in different languages.

The festivities in Bethlehem begin with prayers and songs nine days before Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, the Patriarch of Jerusalem makes a traditional procession through Bethlehem and the faithful gather in Manger Square and the Church of Nativity at midnight to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

For centuries, Bethlehem residents have been joined by pilgrims from around the world.

Traditionally coming in the hundreds of thousands, the numbers of pilgrims have dwindled to the tens of thousands in recent years.

Christmas Eve, before the Vigil Mass, is a day of fasting and abstinence. A special church service is held in the city on Christmas morning. A cross is dipped in water, so as to bless it and three sips of the holy water are taken before eating anything.

Palestinian families traditionally celebrate Christmas with gift-giving, carols and traditional meals of roast lamb, sweets made with nougat and sesame seeds, roasted chestnuts, a hot, sweet drink of rose water and nuts and semolina pancakes stuffed with nuts and cheese.

During Christmas day, residents and tourists visit the many revered sites in the city, including the Church of Nativity and the Milk Grotto, where the holy family apparently took refuge on their way to Egypt.

Christmas in Iraq

Since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christians have been hit hard, particularly in parts of Baghdad and Mosul.

The government of Iraq declared Christmas as an official holiday for the first time in 2008.

A typical Christmas day in an Iraqi household involves quiet, solemn celebrations. On the eve of Christmas, children from each family traditionally read the story of Nativity from Arabic Bibles while other family members light candles and listen.

A unique Iraqi tradition is to create a bonfire of dried thorns after the story is read. Iraqi Christians believe that the burning fire forecasts the future of the household in the forthcoming year. If the thorns burn completely to become ash, it is seen as an indicator of good fortune for the family. Family members then jump over the ash and make a wish.

The community then visits the local church on Christmas Day. During the service, the Bishop blesses the people by placing his hand on a member of the congregation. That member then touches the person standing next to him and the process is said to continue until everyone has received the ‘touch of peace’.

Christmas in Lebanon

The festive atmosphere of the season is much more perceptible in Lebanon, where it is celebrated with much fanfare. Houses are decorated, streets where Christian communities reside are lit up and shops put out their Christmas wares for sale.

A Lebanese tradition involves people sowing seeds of chickpeas, beans, wheat grains or lentils in cotton wool two weeks before Christmas day. The plants are well taken care of and when the big day arrives, the shoots are placed under the Christmas tree to mark the birth of Jesus Christ.

Giving the gift of poinsettias when visiting homes of friends or family is a common custom during the season, too.

Christmas morning sees people waking up early and meeting with friends and relatives over coffee and sugared almonds. Lunch is the main part of the day, with family members coming together to enjoy traditional dishes such as kibbeh (a meal of lamb and rice) or burghul with tabbouleh (a type of parsley salad).

In the heart of towns, Christmas evenings often see Lebanese Christians lighting large bonfires and celebrating with songs and dances. One of the most loved forms of dance – the dabkeh – sees men and women forming semi-circles and dancing to a cheery tune. The festivities continue well into the New Year.

Christmas in Syria

In traditional Syrian custom, children have to wait a little longer to receive their Christmas presents – and Rudolph the reindeer isn’t the one leading the toy drive!

On New Year’s Day, children are told their gifts have been brought to them by the youngest of the camels that carried the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem.

Known as the Magi, the men are important figures in traditional accounts of Nativity celebrations, and were a group of kings who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Eagerly expecting the camels, children leave water and hay outside their homes in the night. With the light of the morning, these are replaced by their presents.

Similar to other places in the Middle East, Syrian Christians ring in Christmas with hymns sung together. The youngest members of the household read aloud stories of old to listening ears.

The Christmas feast is an important part of Syrian tradition in this season. The entire family gathers for dinner, which generally includes chicken, nuts, pastries and oranges.

Christmas in Egypt

While December 25 is considered Christmas day in most regions of the world, the Coptic Church, which is an Orthodox church, celebrates Christmas on January 7.

Advent, a time of waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas, is observed for forty days and during this period people are expected to fast, eating no meat, poultry or dairy products. Some people do this only during the last week of Advent.

On the Eve of Christmas everyone goes to church wearing their best or newest clothes. The Christmas service ends at midnight with the ringing of church bells, following which, people go home to eat a special Christmas meal known as fata, which consists of bread, rice, garlic and boiled meat.

On Christmas morning, people in Egypt traditionally visit friends and neighbours. They take with them ‘kaik’, a type of shortbread, which they give to their hosts and is typically eaten with a soup, locally known as ‘shorba’.

Christmas in Jordan

What’s a Christmas party without cake? In traditional Jordanian households, the cakemaking process begins at the beginning of December, by soaking dried fruits in brandy, rum and cognac. Later flour, eggs and baking powder are added and it is baked. The cake is then served on Christmas Eve dinner.

Christmas day is customarily spent at the house of the elders in the family, followed by visits to relatives and friends.

Spending time with family is important in Jordan during this joyous season, as with other places in the Middle East.

Sources: Institute for Middle East Understanding, thehistoryofchristmas.com

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