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Councilman John Akouri, former Washington, DC Press Secretary & Capitol Hill Advisor, is President & CEO of the Lebanese American Chamber of Commerce.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

MILAD MAJEED! Christmas in Lebanon

Visible from as far as the Mediterranean, streets are bright with Christmas lights as the Christmas season gets underway in Lebanon. On Christmas Eve families and friends gather around their Christmas tree for an evening of celebration. The meal often features turkey or chicken, wine or arak, and the dessert is Bûche de Noël, a French Christmas cake decorated to look like a yule log. At midnight, the churchbells ring in the cities and towns as people go to church in their new clothes. Papa Noel is the gift bringer and the children eagerly await his arrival. They hang red stocking by the chimney to be filled with sweets.
In Lebanon, preparation for Christmas begins like everywhere in the Middle East, about two weeks before Christmas. Then the Lebanese start planting seeds of peas, beans, wheat and lentils into cotton-wool balls. Until Christmas the seedlings grow up to a height of 15 centimetres. The Lebanese decorate the cribs with these seedlings. The figures of the cribs are mostly made out of brown paper. Also a star is fixed above the biblical scene. Like hardly any other nation the Lebanese prepare for Christmas. On the last nine days before Christmas Eve special sermons are held in all churches of the country. Christmas is not only a feast of the familiy; most of all it is a feast of the religious community.
Everybody helps to decorate the churches. Of course the pleasures of the flesh are very important. During the time before Christmas the Lebanese do the baking for all one is worth! Traditionally the people in the Middle East visit their friends on the morning of the 25th of December. Coffee, liqueur, cookies and sweet almonds are offered on these occasions. The most important banquet of the Christmas time takes place at midday on the 25th of December. Usually then the whole family comes together in the house of the oldest member of the family. Often the meal contains chicken with rice and 'Kubbeh' which is a paste made out of crushed and cooked wheat mixed with meat, onions, salt and pepper. The dessert is the cookies & pastries that were so eagerly produced before Christmas!
Like hardly any other nation the Lebanese prepare for Christmas.
Most of the countries of the Arab world have special traditions related to Christmas. Some of them are in common with those of the western world but there are some unique differences as well. For example, for many Christians, Christmas is preceded by a fasting period of 40 days. Another tradition is the ringing of huge church bells on Christmas Eve, to announce the birth of Christ. Most homes in the Middle East try to raise plants in small dishes, at least 3 weeks before Christmas. The living plants remind of the living Lord. These plants are grown in dishes into which they put a thin layer of cotton instead of soil. Different kinds of seeds like wheat, lentils, beans, chickpeas and other fast growing seeds are placed on the cotton. These plants, which usually grow to a height of about 17 cm during this time, are usually placed under the Christmas tree, at the entrance of the Christmas cave, or in different corners of the house, where they will be kept until the Christmas tree is taken down.
Food also plays a unique part of the Christmas celebration. There is a tradition of preparing a special type of pudding whenever a child is born into a family at this time of year, particularly if it is a boy. This kind of pudding is called Mughly. It is made up of rice flour, caraway, sugar and other spices, put into small plates. It is topped with coconut, raisins, peanuts, crushed almonds, and walnuts. This pudding is offered to the members of the family as well as to the visitors who come to the house visiting during the season. In Lebanese villages large bonfires are made in the town centers where everyone gathers in a circle around the fire to sing songs and tell stories. This is a chance to renew friendships and to reconcile with one another for any misunderstanding during the year. Special dances called Dabkeh are performed during the Christmas season. Young men and women hold hands in semi-circles dancing together to special music. The dances are made up of artistic footwork that harmonizes with the sound of the music. The dancers wear special colorful clothes and head covers or "tambourines."
Traditionally throughout the Middle East people visit friends on Christmas morning and are offered coffee, liqueurs and sugared almonds. Lunch at Christmas is the most important meal of the season and the whole family gathers together for it, usually at grandparents or the eldest sons' home. The meal consists of chicken and rice, and Kubbeh, which is made up of crushed boiled wheat or burghul mixed with meat, onion, salt and paper.

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