Syria, Christmas in

Syria, Christmas in

Christians make up just under 10 percent of the population of the Middle Eastern nation of Syria. Most are Eastern Christians, that is, Christians whose traditions of worship developed in the Middle East, north Africa, and eastern Europe. Among the many denominations represented in Syria are the Syrian, Greek, and Armenian Orthodox churches, the Maronite Church, the Assyrian (or Nestorian) Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, and the Melchite (or Greek Catholic) Church. Many Eastern Christians fast for some or all of Advent, a period of spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas time. Eastern Christians fast by avoiding meat, dairy products, fish, and eggs.

Christmas Eve and Day

Church bells ring out on Christmas Eve and many Syrians attend evening religious services. They mark Christmas Day with a festive dinner and visits to family members and friends. Visitors are offered coffee, nuts, fruit, candy, and Middle Eastern sweets, such as baklava, burma, and mulabas.

Gift Bringer

In Syria, the camel is the Christmas season gift bringer. Legend elaborates that the youngest of the camels that carried the Magi to Bethlehem to worship the infant Jesus fell down exhausted at the end of its long journey. Jesus blessed the animal and bestowed upon it the gift of immortal life. Ever after it has traveled the world, bringing gifts to Syrian children on New Year's Eve.

New Year's Day

Syrians give presents on New Year's Day. Many people also go visiting on this day. Hosts offer their guests coffee and sweets. Women usually stay home to receive guests on New Year's Day, and go visiting themselves on January 2.

Epiphany

Syrian Christians also have many customs and folk beliefs concerning Epiphany. This holiday, falling twelve days after Christmas, is interpreted differently by Eastern and Western Christians. While Western Christians associate the day with the arrival of the Magi, Eastern Christians observe it as a commemoration of Jesus' baptism. According to the Bible, when Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, the Holy Spirit of God, in the shape of a dove, flew down to him from heaven (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10 and 3:22, John 1:32). Inspired by this event, Syrian folk legends declared that the gates of heaven open each year on Epiphany eve, making it a night of mystical power and unlooked-for miracles. Syrian Christians call Epiphany eve Lailat al-Qadr, "the night of destiny." Muslims use the same name for a holiday of their own, which falls during the holy month of Ramadan and honors another opening of the gates of heaven. For Muslims Lailat al-Qadr commemorates the delivery of the Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, to the prophet Muhammad by Gabriel, the angel who also heralded Jesus'birth.

According to Syrian folklore, the trees bow down at midnight on Epiphany eve in honor of Jesus Christ. What's more, God blesses the especially devout with miracles of increase on this evening. Thus, the truly good might wake to find that a half-empty jug of wine is now brimming, or a pot of dough is now filled to overflowing. One old superstition advises housewives to push a silver coin into a small lump of dough, tuck it inside a towel and tie it to a tree on Epiphany eve. Overnight the dough becomes leaven. Families keep the miracle dough throughout the year.

Christians in Syria mark Epiphany day with church services. Among Orthodox Christians Epiphany is also known as "Blessing of the Waters Day." Some Syrians bring bottles of water to church for the priest to bless. In addition, priests visit Christian homes at Epiphany time, performing a house-blessing ceremony with holy water (specially blessed water). Children chase and splash each other with water on this day, perhaps inspired by these pious customs.

Further Reading

Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997. Sechrist, Elizabeth. Christmas Everywhere. 1936. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Spicer, Dorothy G. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003