Middle Eastern Christmas Spreads Cheer, Aims to Fix Misconceptions
SOURCE: HOUSTON CHRONICLES
BY: MASSARAH MIKATI
Familiar Christmas melodies in a different tongue spilled through the tall doors of the Arab American Cultural & Community Center Saturday afternoon. A man in traditional Arab garb — pantaloons, a pinstriped shirt and a keffiyeh wrapped around his head — greeted visitors at the entrance of the grand hall for the Christmas in the Middle East event this weekend.
“Some people still think Arab and Christian is an oxymoron, but we’re not just Muslims,” said Faiza Zalila, president of the secular organization. “And when you think about the origins, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Palestine.”
As of 2010, Christians made up about 4 percent of the entire Middle East, according to the Pew Research Center study – and in countries like Lebanon, that number reaches about 40 percent. People – including non-Christians – indulge Western traditions like Christmas lights and trees. But Arabs also have their own customs, like Christmas songs by the infamous Lebanese singer Fairuz, or enjoying a Yule long-inspired Bûche de Noël.
Christians and Muslims alike sang and ate together inside the community center.
Christmas trees stood next to fake palm trees, and a row of posterboards detailing Christmas traditions in each Middle Eastern country stood against one of the walls. Dozens of children decorated cookies in the shapes of trees and snowmen, atop tables decorated with wreaths and red and green candles.
“We used to celebrate with our friends all the time when we were back in Iraq, we would visit each other and go to church, too,” said Vatsala Baydaa, who wears a hijab. “Here, we have a small Christmas tree.”
Her elementary-aged son, Jamal, tugged on her sleeve mid-sentence to show her the ornament he painted.
Hakam Madi, who is originally Palestinian, excitedly whipped out his smartphone to show a video of a Christmas tree lighting in Bethlehem. Thousands of people counted down, as fireworks joined the tree in lighting up the sky while a dance crew performed the dabke, a folkloric Middle Eastern dance.
“All Palestinians — Christian, Muslim, Jewish — all celebrate Christmas, and also the other religious holidays too,” he said.
Over 30 students flooded out of a schoolbus from McNamara Elementary School, the administrative officials taking advantage of the event to spread cultural awareness among their diverse student population. A girl asked her friend what language was being spoken — “Arabic,” her peer responded.
“There are misconceptions that all the Middle East is Muslim and it’s all desert,” said vice principal Toufic Elachkar. “We want to expose them to different cultures.”