Christians may hold a minority status in the Middle East, but as the birthplace of Christianity the regions still contains a significant Christian population estimated at around 12 million people. Despite recent headlines pointing to the persecution of Christians under tyrannical regimes such as that currently pursued by the terrorist group ISIS, Christmas still remains an important religious festival in the region, and is widely celebrated by Christians and Muslims alike.
Although Christmas is nominally a Christian tradition, in today’s globalised world a number of Muslim countries also join in with the celebrations, with many Muslim families using the day as an excuse to get together, eat and be merry. Thus in keeping with the holiday spirit, MEMO presents a snapshot of festivities and culinary dishes in the Arab Christian world, so that you can have yourself a merry Middle Eastern Christmas, if you so should wish.
In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ and the holy epicentre around which Christianity revolves, Christmas Eve is celebrated not one, not twice, but three times; by various different factions and congregations including Protestant, Catholic, Syrian and Greek Orthodox and Armenian churches. Indeed, it is not uncommon for three Christmas Eve services to occur simultaneously in different parts of the Church of St Catherine of Alexandria and in three different languages. Contrary to popular belief, the Church of the Nativity does not hold a service on Christmas itself, and instead celebrates its mass on 7 January, following the Orthodox calendar.
Palestinian Christians, too, are an eclectic bunch, which is reflected in their choice of Christmas meal. Traditionally, the centrepiece of the meal would be a meat dish, probably lamb, cooked in a variety of different ways but similar in terms of the richness and variety of the ingredients and the complexity of the recipe. Possible incarnations include Zarb, a whole lamb cooked in an underground oven fuelled by squeezed olives; Mahshi (meaning “stuffed”), a whole lamb stuffed with rice mixed with minced meat, nuts and spices, then brushed with yoghurt, oil and spices and roasted in the oven; or Hameem, chunks of lamb slow cooked in an earthenware pot sealed with a mixture of flour and water to retain moisture and flavour.
In Palestine, as in other Levantine countries, no meal would be complete without the surrounding plates of mezze, usually comprising of hummous, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, falafel and other staples. Palestinian Christians also celebrate with gift-giving, sweets made with nougat and sesame seeds, a hot drink of sweetened rose water and semolina pancakes stuffed with nuts and cheese. The American-style Christmas turkey has also become a festive staple across the Middle East, inspired in part by globalisation and the cheaper price of turkeys in comparison to lamb.
In Lebanon, which has a sizable Christian population, the festivities really take off. One Lebanese culinary tradition involves the sowing of chickpeas, beans or lentils in cotton wool two weeks before Christmas, when the shoots are placed under the Christmas tree to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. The meal is traditionally lamb or turkey, which is stuffed with either rice and spices or pomegranate stuffing – not like the boring old sage and onion in the West.
Iraqi Christians have been particularly hard hit in recent years, first by the US-led invasion of 2003 and ensuing sectarian war and most recently by the rise of terrorist group ISIS. There is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel, however, and the government of Iraq declared Christmas an official holiday for the first time in 2008. There are few documented accounts of traditional Christmas meals eaten in Iraq, but it is likely that, like their Muslim compatriots, Christian Iraqis indulge in the delights of either Quzi, a whole lamb slow-cooked with rice, nuts and spices, or Masgouf, a traditional Mesopotamian dish of seasoned grilled Tigris carp often considered Iraq’s national dish. Other possibilities include Dolma, vegetables stuffed with rice, minced meat and herbs (not the stuffed vine leaves common in the Levant), and Maqlouba, a layered rice dish with spiced meat and vegetables also eaten in other Arab countries.
A uniquely Iraqi tradition is to create a bonfire of dried thorns on Christmas Day after the story of the Nativity is read. Iraqi Christians believe that the burning of the fire predicts the fortunes of the household for the coming year: if the fire consumes the thorns completely and turns them to ashes, this is seen as a good omen and family members will stamp on the ashes and make a wish.
In Syria, children traditionally had to wait until New Year’s Day to receive their presents, which they were told would be brought to them by the youngest camel in the caravan that brought the Three Wise Men to attend the birth of Jesus. Children leave offerings of hay and water in anticipation of the camels’ arrival, much like the American tradition of leaving carrots for Father Christmas’s reindeer. The Syrian Christmas feast is also an important part of the celebrations, and generally includes chicken, nuts, sweet pastries and oranges.
Jordanian Christians, on the other hand, spend weeks preparing their Christmas cake, similar to the British version made with dried fruit and spices soaked in brandy and cognac.
Although religious and culinary traditions may vary across the region, there is one thing that Christmas means to all Middle Eastern Christians (and increasingly, Muslims); and that is to take a day to spend time with your family and loved ones and indulge in a variety of delicious treats.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.