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Christmas in the Holy Land: Family and Community

A Palestinian vendor selling corn pushes a cart through Bethlehem’s Manger Square on 16 December. The square with the Church of the Nativity, seen in back, is the hub of activity for Christmas celebrations in the Holy Land. (photo: CNS/Ammar Awad, Reuters) 

18 Dec 2012 – By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM (CNS) — The simmering smell of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in Catholic parishes across the West Bank and Israel heralds the start of the Christmas season in early December as families prepare burbara, the special wheat pudding eaten to mark the feast day of St. Barbara, known as Eid al Burbara in Arabic.

According to local Christian tradition, St. Barbara, who was beheaded by her pagan father because of her Christian faith, was held and tortured in a tower that stood in the nearby village of Aboud.

At a special Mass on 4 December at St. Joseph Parish in Jifna, the parish hall was laden with the homemade puddings presented in festive plates and decorated with chocolate Santa Claus bars, colored candies, sugared almonds sprinkled with cocoa. Families send bowls of the fragrant pudding studded with dried fruit and nuts to Muslim and Christian friends and neighbors.

“Normally we begin our Christmas celebrations after St. Barbara,” said Father Firas Aridah, pastor. Families begin decorating their homes and Christmas trees after the feast, he said. On 15 December parishioners begin a novena, marking the nine days before Christmas, in a community-wide celebration when the village Christmas tree is lit and all the parishioners light their home decorations.

Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts lead a festive procession around the village, and the three priests from the Greek Orthodox and Catholic churches come together to celebrate and greet one another at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

In Israel, too, many Catholic communities will have own scout procession in the days leading up to Christmas. Some parades are replete with bagpipes, a tradition that extends to the days of British control.

A newer tradition in Bethlehem, West Bank, finds people singing Christmas carols in Manger Square starting on 16 December as choirs sponsored by the municipality perform through Christmas Eve, said Minerva Andonia, 35, of Bethlehem. While Ms. Andonia is Catholic, her husband is Greek Orthodox.

As almost everywhere, gift-giving is an important part of the festivities, though without the shopping frenzy often associated with the Christmas season in the United States and elsewhere.

“Presents are necessary,” Andonia said. “It’s the spirit of Christmas, but you can give something not expensive.”

Children also wait — impatiently — for the arrival of Santa Claus, she said, and are good-naturedly admonished to behave lest they end up with nothing.

In Catholic communities in Israel, a family member traditionally dresses up as Santa Claus and hands out presents to the children on Christmas Eve. More recently, stores offer their own “special delivery service” with employees dressing up as Santa Claus to deliver gifts.

Across the West Bank in towns with large Christian populations, young people often dress up as Santa Claus during the season and ring hand-held bells as they traipse around the town. In Israeli cities such as Haifa and Nazareth, children dressed as Santa Claus are also a common sight.

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Tags: Holy Land Cultural Identity Unity Bethlehem West Bank