12 Christmas traditions for Palestinian Christians in Israel
For an average Palestinian family, holiday meals and especially Christmas Eve dinner revolves around FOOD. And as the main course, we have barbequed meat! Yes, lamb chops, kebab, pork chops, lamb cutlets, chicken steaks meat meat and more meat.
Of course, it comes with an endless selection of salads: tehina, tabouli, Arab salad, potato salad, babaganoush, mushrooms, matbucha, french fries and bread. (Bread goes with everything, even rice!)
Let us not forget the kubba, grape leaves filled with rice and meat, sfiha and a selection of savory pastries (sigars, burekas, etc.)
Drinks: a selection of spirits and all the sodas you can think of.
If you think that is too much food, consider that our minimum family gatherings involve around 20 people at the least. And of course, we eat it as leftovers the rest of that week (or two).
Candy: For those sweet tooth lovers, the most traditional Christmas candy is Santa shaped chocolate figures. They come in different sizes. Other variations come with a string to hang on your Christmas tree.
2. Shopping and Days off
I can go buy any present on my gifts list at any time. No que. No special holiday prices. This applies to all cities in Israel other than those who have a substantial population of Palestinians. Why? Because the majority of the country’s population does not celebrate Christmas. All i need to do is drive 10 minutes to a neighboring Jewish city, and all is available. Life goes as normal. It is a strange feeling to be in the Christmas mode and then when you get back to work or university , it is just another day of the week. You just had a personal holiday.
3. Give Holiday Greetings
Holidays is the time you buy and wear new clothes. You wear them at church and then when you go to visit your friends and relative for the Christmas period. In arabic we say “to give holiday greetings” and that is what you do. Family members visit each other’s houses in order to say Merry Christmas to each other, and as a tradition, the hosts offer the guests small glass of liquor and christmas candy. You end up spending the first few days of Christmas giving holiday greetings to your close family and friends, and then the rest of the holiday you postpone visiting the distant but necessary family relatives!
4. Christmas music
You don’t hear it on the radio, shops or passing by a loud car. You just have to decide when you want to start consciously listening to Christmas music, and you do it.
The favored english Christmas singers are Maria Carey, Celine Dion and Fairuz (the ones she sings in english)
5. Uninvited guests
Just when all the family gathers at your house, and you are just about to get ready for dinner, guests show up at your door:
Crowded Santas: men wearing cheap fake santa suits from China with a plastic mask on that is borderline scary, knock at your door just as you are about to sit together as a family. They come in bearing cheap toffee for the children, and ask you to give a donation to their church or organization. In return you get a very poorly done yearly calendar with a huge icon of Virgin Mary or a Saint. You can’t really dodge that one, and someone ends up giving a donation.
Foreign Aid: If you are lucky, you might have the special guests of two or three Koreans who come in with a guitar out of tune and sing a song in Korean. They too want a donation, and they thank you in return.
6. Christmas Trees
The majority of Christians don’t use many real Christmas trees for different reasons in their homes. Geographically, this land doesn’t have many trees so cutting them for the purpose of a season is not popular. Planting trees for Christmas is not a profitable business. Furthermore, we use Cypress trees as Christmas trees and so it is a challenge to find one that has a natural proportionate branches and fits your corner nicely.
So, the alternative is using a fake plastic (also made in China) tree that you pull out of storage each year. And each year you lose some of its leaves each time.
7. City decorations
In Nazareth, where Muslims and Christians live, i can understand that the municipality has to be neutral in their choice of street decorations. After all, they want to be able to reuse the decorations, and have equal representation of them to both religious groups. Almost every year, for one holiday at least, there are new decorations added to the existing ones. So, in the end, you have a collection of lights in which some are 10 years old and others are brand new. Some say Happy New Year and others say Ramadan Kareem, but that is the beauty of Nazareth celebrations. And lets not forget the strings of colored or white light bulbs that store owners add around their shop across the streets.
8. Christmas parade
Each institution can participate in this parade, and on Christmas eve, the city gets ready for a 2 hour Parade where scouts walk while playing lively Christmas music on drums, bagpipes, horns and bugles. There is also Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny suits dancing around. A replica of the manger sits on the back of a truck where children are dressed up in the traditional nativity figures, ringing their bells and throwing toffees. Here too, the streets are full of santa suits ringing their bells and taking pictures with random babies. It is a lively atmosphere and many spectators come to take part.
9. Lighting the Tree
This is a relatively new trend where a huge event is organized to light a tree in the center of town (some plastic and some real). Thousands come to attend the event while waiting for the moment. This is picking up more commercial attraction with a center stage and many companies selling their products.Lately, each church has had its own lighting the Christmas tree event and this fills the city with Christmas lights.
Someone once asked me, what is it with Palestinians and fireworks? well, i don’t know the answer but what i do know is that we love them. We don’t need a reason to light fireworks, you hear them all year round. But during the holidays we go overboard with a grand Fireworks show, followed by small fireworks echoing in neighborhoods.
11. Multiple Christmas Eves
Some Christians celebrate Christmas according to Eastern Christianity and others according to Protestants. So, all the above basically repeats itself for almost a month. Protestant Christmas is on the 25th. Greek Orthodox is on the 7th of January. Armenian Christmas is on the 17th of January. The same applies for New Years a week later (for each one)
12.Manger Set - DIY
Get together brown paper rolls, spray paint in green, grey and gold, and figurines for the manger and you are off on a journey to make your own manger next to your christmas tree. There is no prize for the winner, but your guests do marvel at your work of art, and do give you a score (though not aloud).
In conclusion, Christmas is what you make of it. You have to work extra hard here to maintain a holiday spirit, and you have to be willing to spend much time travelling between Nazareth, Bethlehem, Haifa and other cities just to experience a taste of Christmas. May your traditions bring you a time of celebration and remembrance of the true gift.