Christmas in the Arab World: Traditions and Customs
Merry Christmas from all of us at Arab America to all those who are celebrating! This Christmas, are you trying to remember how Christmas is celebrated in your homeland? The content of this article will remind you of the special Christmas traditions in different Arab countries!
Only about 15% of the Egyptian population is Christian. Most Christians in Egypt are of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and therefore celebrate Christmas on January 7th; however, some Christians are evangelicals and of other Christian dominations. In Egypt, festivities begin about a month before Christmas, in the Coptic month Kiahk, where special praise songs are sung on Saturday nights before Sunday mass services. During Advent, Coptic Orthodox Christians follow a strict diet, cutting out chicken, beef, milk, and eggs. On Christmas Eve, mass services can last anywhere from 9 pm to about 4 am! However, services typically wrap up just after midnight. At the end of these services, families go home to eat a big meal and break the Advent fast of animal products. You may wish your Egyptian friends who celebrate the holiday a Merry Christmas by saying “Eid Milad Majid!”
Although Morocco isn’t a majority Christian country, many people in this country still celebrate. However, some celebrate religious and some celebrate secular holidays. Christianity was spread to this area as a result of French and Spanish imperialism. Therefore, Christmas celebrations may have elements of French culture, due to their strong impact. Buche de Noel is a French cake baked during the Christmas season and is very popular in Moroccan markets as well.
Many people pay visits to Marrakech in Morocco during the holiday season. In Morocco, Christmas festivities can be found in bigger cities, like Marrakech, Casablanca, or Rabat. Marrakech is home to many different communities and immigrant groups and is therefore rich in various cultures. However, other cities tend to celebrate an Arab Christmas with European influences. Many religious services, most of which are Catholic, can be attended, but there are areas that will celebrate a secular holiday.
Christmas is celebrated widely throughout Lebanon. Marketing in the past few years made Christmas celebrated secularly. For Christian people in Lebanon, Christmas is a celebration of renewing friendships. Many Muslim people in Lebanon also take part in Christmas celebrations. Many major roads and streets may be decorated with Christmas trees and nativity scenes.
Lunch is considered the most important meal on Christmas. Families will gather together for a meal of chicken, rice, and mixed with onion, meat, salt, and pepper. Beirut typically conducts glamourous Christmas decorations, parties, and festivities. Many non-Christians alike are invited, and it’s a great way to celebrate renewing friendships together! Many villages in Lebanon make large bonfires and everyone gathers around, to tell stories, sing songs, and reconcile misgivings. What a special tradition!
Syrian Christmas traditions are always followed with devotion. The smallest camel to have traveled with the Three Wise Kings is thought to be the one to bring children throughout Syria gifts. This is because this camel is said to have been exhausted by the journey and collapsed, but Jesus Christ is said to have blessed the camel with immortal life! It is common for children to leave shoes outside with food for the camel inside. The following morning, everyone attends mass followed by an upbeat and cheerful procession. Syrian priests carry a figure of Jesus in his hand and walk throughout the Church, while the congregation sings hymns and prayers. After these prayers, the priest typically performs the “touch of peace”, where he touches a person’s hand, and these touches are passed from person to person throughout the congregation, to ensure everyone is touched with peace. Following mass, families partake in a delicious meal full of many chickens, lamb, and dessert dishes. Similar to Egyptian people, many people in Syria fast leading up to Christmas, which makes the dinner even more special.
Christmas was declared a public holiday for the first time in Iraq as of 2008. Christians are a small population in Iraq, and many of them celebrate quietly. The holiday is solemn full of prayer and religious services. Services are conducted at local churches and a unique tradition is the burning of dried thorns. These thorns are burnt at services to signify the future of the households in the congregation for the coming year. If the thorns burn into ash, this signifies good fortune. This is also practiced at home on Christmas Eve. If the thorns are burned to ash, everyone jumps over the ashes three times and makes a wish.
Because Amman, the Jordanian capital, is only an hour-long drive from Bethlehem where Jesus was born, the city has many festive decorations and festivities to celebrate the season. In Jordan, however, Christians are a small minority in the population and are only about four to six percent of the population. Many of the churches have agreed to celebrate the holiday together, on December 25th. There was an agreement about the date because Christmas is celebrated on different days in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Luckily, all Christians in Jordan were able to agree on the celebration of Christmas on December 25th, so that all Jordanian Christians can celebrate together. Jordan considers Christmas a public holiday, similar to how Jordan, which is 92%, recognizes the Birthday of the Prophet Muhammad as a public holiday. Many people, both Christian in Muslim, celebrate Christmas with warmth, friendship, and hospitality at the center of the holiday.
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