The idea of Arab Christians might seem like an oddity to some people, but it was actually Arab Christians who pushed for a renaissance of Arab culture, a period of time which was called the ‘Nahda’, and dates back to the 19th century.
At a time when sectarianism might seem like the root of much of the region’s violence, it’s important to remind ourselves that Arabs are nuanced people who are able to balance multiple identities while still sharing so many things in common.
There is no better time to celebrate religious co-existence in the Middle East than Christmas time.
We asked six young Arab Christians from countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Palestine, what it’s like to celebrate Christmas in Muslim-majority countries.
Solenne, Palestinian-Jordanian“Christmas is the craziest time of the year. From hair and nail appointments to choosing outfits and then spending way too much time getting ready and hearing your mama and baba scare you with the words, “We’re in the car, we’re leaving now!” and then head to the first destination of the night which is my mother’s side of the family. My sisters and I all have different dietary needs due to autoimmune diseases, food intolerances, and PCOS. So this is a time where we go the extra mile in the kitchen to cook and bake a variety of paleo/vegan/gluten-free dishes. On Christmas morning my mama and baba make Christmas baskets for my two sisters and me. As we sit together by the tree with our Christmas morning tea, my sisters and I always start tearing up! It’s an overwhelming moment where you really feel how blessed you are by the love you receive from your family members. Christmas to me is symbolic of the year coming to a close as we collectively share the last moments of the year with our loved ones, anticipating what’s to come in the year ahead! Whether we’ve made a new friend or recently lost a loved one, Christmas is a time for us to be appreciative of the people we have in our lives.”
Tracy, Lebanese“Christmas has always been a very important time of the year for my family. When we were kids, we used to gather at my grandmother’s house with my brother and sister, my parents and my extended family, which is really huge. A lot of us lived in the same family building, and we all got along very well. They would start preparing for it at least a month before, and they would not take it lightly. The building would be full of lights and decoration, and the tree was something sacred, with coloured decorations that my mum and aunts would even create manually for weeks. My mother would also leave a mug of milk and some biscuits for Santa Claus by the chimney, saying he needed to get some energy between his shifts. Later on we would have a big lunch with the family, and the tradition is to eat turkey filled with chestnuts and rice as a main dish, with many Lebanese dishes around it, like tabbouleh and some mezzes. It’s a celebration of generosity and joy. That’s the way I see it in Lebanon at least. My family cancelled Christmas the past two years, after two of my family members unfortunately passed away. We still get together, but there’s no ostentatious celebration. I think this shows how important this festivity is for them, cancelling it being the ultimate sign of love and grief.”
“Christmas is a very warm time for my family and I. Not only is it an important religious holiday, but it also means a lot to us because it’s the time when the family gets together. Usually, around three weeks before Christmas day, we start to decorate our Christmas tree. That is also the time when the churches around our house (Kassaa) have Christmas events. I really enjoy taking my son to arts & crafts at the church where he makes his own Christmas ornaments. My mom and I like going to the Church bazaar where they sell a lot of Christmas desserts, decorations and gifts. At the bazaar the church will sound Christmas music and some food vendors will be there selling sandwiches, crepes etc. Christmas eve is when the family all gets together for a delicious Christmas meal. We prefer to celebrate at home rather than go to a party at a restaurant. We all enjoy turkey, appetizers, cheese and meat platters, and lots and lots of wine & drinks. During Christmas dinner, we open up all the presents we’ve gotten for each other, but we always make sure to explain to my son that Santa Claus will bring him a special gift that he can open on Christmas Day.”
Tania, Jordanian“Christmas is really cute. I usually have dinner with my family on Christmas eve, but in my home, we always invite our friends. So all my Muslim friends are invited and we eat typical Christmas food but always with a local touch. After the dinner, there’s always one of my Muslim friends who throws a house party and we have fun all together!”
Nour, Lebanese“Christmas: a time for gratitude. I grew up living with my grandparents. I always loved Christmas because all my uncles and cousins from the diaspora would come home for the holidays and the house was bustling and jolly. As a kid, I learned Christmas carols in English at home, as my grandparents are English educated, and Christmas carols in French in school. In our household, gratitude was central and giving back is essential during the month of December. In the house, we would decorate with mistletoe, watch Christmas movies for the whole month of December, and set up a grotto under the tree with Mary, Joseph and the three mages and would only add Jesus to it at midnight on Christmas Eve. We would eat Turkey, lots of chestnut filled dishes and desserts, liquor, red wine, champagne, “bûches de noel”… Contrary to tradition, an uncle dressed as Santa would come over at midnight and we would open gifts on Christmas Eve instead of the next morning. On Christmas Day we would gather at our great grandmother’s, with the extended family, and eat more oriental versions of the Turkey with some Palestinian influence. The Christmas tree would only go down after the Epiphany (Eid el Ghtass), when we would eat ‘Kingcake’ to end the holiday season in cheer.”
Marina, Egyptian“I really start to feel the Christmas vibes from the beginning of December as that’s when the Christmas tree goes up and decorations start filling the house and Christmas songs start playing. We usually celebrate Christmas on January 6 or 7 in Egypt. It’s slightly different for everyone, but for me, we usually get our hair and makeup done, get dressed nicely and then we go to a holy Christmas communion at church on Christmas night (6) and then we have a family gathering with my dad’s side of the family. Then on Christmas Day we wake up in our Christmas pyjamas, have a nice family breakfast with some Christian Christmas songs playing, and later in the afternoon we exchange Christmas gifts and then we go to another family gathering but this time with my mom’s family. These Christmas family gatherings are really nice as everyone comes together and you get to catch up with people, there’s also lots of delicious food like stuffed meat, lasagna, turkey, my grandmother’s home made cookies (ka7k), chocolates, and cakes, as my dad and uncle’s birthdays are on Christmas. As Copts, we break our pescatarian/vegan fasting on Christmas, so there tends to be a lot of yummy food.”