While Christians in the Middle East are a minority of the population of the region, they experience Christmas in a special way because they celebrate it in the birthplace of Christianity itself. Christians living in Bethlehem might not get a white Christmas typical of holiday movies and Christmas cards, but they are able to celebrate in the birthplace of Jesus, focusing on the religious importance of the holiday.
While Christianity, of course, originated in the Middle East, today Christians make up only about five percent of the population there, down from about 20 percent a century ago. Religious persecution, civil war, and political instability are just some of the reasons why Arab Christians have fled their countries and can now be found throughout the world. Of those who remain in the Middle East, Coptic Christians and Maronite Catholics are the two largest Christian communities.
In Jordan, only six percent of the population identifies as Christian; however, there are many other denominations that fall under that umbrella. The largest Christian communities in Jordan are Orthodox or Catholic. Most of the Christian population lives in Amman or the Jordan Valley—a fact that becomes readily apparent during the Christmas season. Every year, shopping centers host grand tree-lighting ceremonies where children take pictures with Santa Claus, just like in any American shopping mall. Families prepare for the holiday by decorating their Christmas trees, preparing food, and wrapping gifts.
Although Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, Jordanian Christians have mutually agreed to base their Christmas celebrations on the Roman Catholic calendar; they observe Christmas day on December 25.
Although Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7, Jordanian Christians have mutually agreed to base their Christmas celebrations on the Roman Catholic calendar; they observe Christmas day on December 25. In exchange, they celebrate Easter according to the Greek Orthodox calendar. This compromise allows for Christians of all sects in Jordan to come together and celebrate as one community. Since the Christian community is already small, adjusting these dates allows them to celebrate a festive season inclusive of all adherents, regardless of sect.
The Muslim majority can also enjoy the Christmas season along with Jordanian Christians because the holiday has been commercialized, as in the West, and the shops and shopping centers are colorfully decorated, creating a festive environment. They can even take their children to Christmas parties at play centers or they may be invited to celebrations at schools and community centers, where they can take pictures with Santa Claus. Just as Muslims open their doors to their Christian friends and neighbors during the celebration of Eid al-Adha, the holiest Islamic feast day holiday honoring Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Christmas is the opportunity for Christians to invite their Muslim brethren in.
Decorating the Christmas tree and traditional gift giving are other ways Muslims participate in Christmas celebrations. Santa Claus was popularized by Western culture, but he now makes his annual appearances throughout the region. Men rent Santa costumes and dress up to make children smile, regardless of their religions. The communal lighting of large Christmas trees is an event for the whole community to get together and enjoy the beautiful decorations. Gift giving is done by both Christians and Muslims.
In Lebanon, about 35 percent of the population is Christian, mostly Maronite Catholic. Christmas is less commercialized in Lebanon than in the West. Families typically have a nativity crib, representing the manger in which Jesus lay after his birth, instead of a Christmas tree. This is where the family gathers and prays. Outside of the home, you can still find the typical western Christmas trees and colorful lights. Events are held throughout Beirut for both Christians and Muslims to celebrate the holiday season together.
In Syria, after years of a bloody war, many Christians have fled persecution, and the Christmas season is no longer the same. Churches have been destroyed and millions of lives have been lost, but after years of instability, Christians have had more opportunity to honor the holiday with their friends and loved ones. Syrian Christians combat the bleakness of life by focusing on the joyous time of year. This is also an opportunity for all the Syrians who have been suffering to celebrate together, regardless of their religion.
Similarly, Christians in Iraq have also suffered persecution, and many have fled their homes. Christmas is the season for celebration, food, music, and pure fun.
Egypt has the largest community of Christians in the region. About 15 percent of the population is Christian and the vast majority belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, so their Christmas day celebration is on January 7, not December 25. The month before Coptic Christmas, believers fast, eating only food that would be similar to a vegan diet. On Christmas Eve, on January 6, they attend a special midnight mass. For the small Christian population that celebrates on December 25, they have many of the same traditions as others throughout the region. For example, families will attend midnight mass together and have a large family gathering with traditional dishes, such as lamb soup with bread, rice, and garlic. Hotels, parks, and shopping centers are also decorated with Christmas trees and lights.
To the millions of people who celebrate it every year, Christmas is not just a one-day celebration. It is a season meant for Christians to celebrate the joyous birth of Jesus with their family and friends. Regardless of the difficulties surrounding them, it is a time to be happy and to welcome neighbors with open arms. Muslims and Christians can unite during this season in coexistence and peace to celebrate their common values of charity, generosity, and forgiveness, values that transcend sectarianism and are common to the world’s three great religions.