Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas in the Orient…

Christmas has been celebrated in the Middle East for centuries. Egypt was the birthplace of the Christmas tree, while St. Nicholas (or Santa Claus) was born near the towns of Patara and Myra in Turkey. During the reign of the Fatimid caliphs the Nativity became one of the main festivals celebrated by both Christians and Muslims. In Mamluk times, lamps decorated the streets and candles were lit in homes. From the 19th to the early 20th century spending Christmas in Egypt became the Vogue amongst wealthy Westerners. The Mena House, one of Egypt’s most storied hotels, would transform its lobby into a winter wonderland, complete with artificial snow and frosted trees. Log fires would burn in the hotel’s many fireplaces, as elegantly dressed women and men in tuxedos, continued to arrive until late in the evening. This holiday season The Polyglot takes you on a journey through the region to reveal its own Christmas traditions.

Lebanon: The Lebanese take their Christmas very seriously. By late November workmen begin stringing lights and decorations along the main streets, record stores are playing Fairouz’s Arabic version of “Silent Night,” and Middle East Airlines distributes nursery-raised cedar seedlings to passengers departing from Lebanon on Christmas day. On any given night one can hear university choirs performing Handel's "Messiah," or attend a midnight Jazz-Mass at the Franciscan Chapel. Kahk, or shortbread pastries, which are also eaten by Muslims during Eid, are a staple of the season.

Syria: In Syria, there is a special mass held on December 6th to honor Saint Nicholas Thaumaturgus, after whom Santa Claus was modeled. On Christmas morning people visit the homes of friends and family where coffee, liqueurs and sugared almonds are served to the guests. A festive Christmas lunch is the highlight of the holiday season celebrations and family gatherings are arranged at the grandparents' home or the eldest sons' home. Traditional Christmas lunch dishes include chicken, rice and Kibbeh.

Egypt: Whether it’s a belly dancing Santa in a store’s window display along 26th of July street in Zamalek or a Santa riding a camel in Sharm el-Sheikh, there are a surprising number of Egyptian traditions that have survived from ancient Pharonic times. Perhaps one of the most striking is the Coptic calendar. Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7th instead of December 25th. At the Saint Mark’s cathedral in Cairo a choir performs a mixed program of Christmas carols and Coptic music.

Iraq: In Christian homes a unique ceremony takes place around Christmas time. In the courtyard of the house one of the children reads the story of the Nativity in Arabic, while other members of the family hold lighted candles. After the story has been read a pyramid of dried thorns is lit on fire. If the thorns burn to ashes, it signifies good luck and prosperity for the family in the coming year. Family members will then jump over the ashes three times and make a wish.

Jordan: In Amman, the joy of Christmas is contagious for both Christians and non Christians. It all begins as the weather gets colder. Hundreds of tiny gleaming lights appear from behind a few scattered windowpanes towards the end of November. Christmas is first celebrated with the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, followed by a Midnight Mass. Similar to Eid children are also given money to buy gifts for themselves.

Palestine: In addition to the ancient and holy celebrations taking place in Bethlehem, two weeks before Christmas families plant seeds of chickpeas, wheat grains, beans and lentils in cotton wool, which they water every day until Christmas. When the seeds have sprouted shoots as high as six inches, they are used to decorate the manger in Nativity scenes.

Iran: Christmas in Iran is known as the “Little Feast.” For the first 25 days of December, a great fast is observed, during which no meat, eggs, milk, or cheese is eaten. Like Ramadan, it is a time of peace and meditation. The last day of the fast is on Christmas Eve, when a special kind of chicken stew is eaten. Since Santa Claus isn’t part of Christmas traditions in Iran, gifts are typically not exchanged. Instead children receive new clothes which they wear during the holiday season.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

love the decorations in beirut during Christmas, very special.