As one of the most celebrated holidays of the year, Christmas in Lebanon is a very special time. Especially so as it's common to witness religious and political divisions set aside whilst everyone embraces the Christmas spirit. Though Lebanon is home to a population of 18 different sects (with more than 30% Christian) and a turbulent history stemming from these religious differences, it's a wonderful thing to see the Christmas spirit alive and well in homes across the country, no matter the family's religious background.
While Christmas in Lebanon has in some sense been stripped of some of its theological roots, with the adoption of more Western traditions, like the Christmas tree and Father Christmas (Baba Noel), many of its unique traditions are still practiced, lending to a balanced festive experience of old world and new.
From the glamorous capital of Beirut to quaint village roundabouts, ornate Christmas trees, flickering lights and nativities are very much the norm; though the nativity, which marks the birth of Jesus, takes prevalence over the Christmas tree. The nativity or crèche serves the purpose of recreating the scene of Jesus's birth, complete with Joseph and Marry figurines, warming animals and gifting shepherds and kings. The crèche is a hugely important practice as it's considered to bless the home and family and the place where the rosary prayer is held for the more religious.
At Christmas, the nativity scene comes to life with the sowing of seeds. Fourteen days before Christmas, sprouted beans and seeds such as chickpeas, broad beans, lentils, oats and wheat are grown on damp cotton wool. By Christmas, the plants will have reached six or more inches in length and these shrubberies fill the cracks of the nativity and other parts of the home.
Christmas mass is still a tradition celebrated in Lebanon as is the traditional dance, known as dabkeh, where people join hands to form a circle or semi-circle and stamp along to native tunes of percussion.
On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, depending on the families' preferred customs, loved ones come together to celebrate around a true Levantine feast. The Christmas table displays an eclectic mix of dishes, showcasing Lebanon's rich history of cultural influences. One will find the traditional kebbeh pie, Lebanon's national dish made from minced meat and burghul, often served in warm yogurt sauce (a symbol of snow) alongside turkey or chicken with spiced, nutty rice, tabouleh, mezze plates of hummus and beet and tahini salad, lamb rotis and much more.
For deserts, the French Mandate stamp is ever so present with the buche de noel, which graces the table of every home in Lebanon and at the same time, there is also the traditional meghli (rice flour, anise and caraway pudding), which is often made in celebration of newborns, and so during this time the celebration of Jesus's birth.
The commercial aspect of gift giving has been adopted wholeheartedly; and children await the visit of Papa Noel (French) or Baba Noel (Frablish). Usually, someone in the family dresses up as Santa while children come together next to the Christmas tree for the dispersion of presents. In Lebanon, Santa Claus is also put to use for social services during the season.
So, as we like to say in Arabic, "Eid Milad Majid" or a "Glorious Birth" to which you may reply "kul am wa enta bi- khair" which means "may every year find you in good health" Alternatively, if you like, a simple Joyeux Noel will do fine, too.