The winter solstice in late December was always celebrated in Europe. The pagan tradition of heralding the shortest day of the year remained after the continent’s conversion to Christianity. Essentially, the existing festival to celebrate the sun for triumphing over the darkness of winter was adopted into Christian tradition. How the darkness of a northern European winter is now of consequence in the Middle East seems slightly out of place.
The Greek and other Orthodox Arab Christian communities have traditionally celebrated the birth of Christ in January. It is the same for the region’s ancient Coptic tradition. The region’s Maronites, who are Catholic, celebrate Christmas much like the rest of the Catholic world, with Mass services from Dec. 15-24. How the Anglo-Saxon celebrations of Dec. 25 have become commonplace is completely removed from the Christian traditions of the region.
Scenes of Santa Claus riding a camel through Jerusalem, or in a makeshift grotto of a regional shopping mall, are also bizarre. The portly, joyous, white-bearded man wrapped in a red coat with a white fur collar and cuffs, a red hat and black leather belt is completely removed from regional traditions of Christmas.
St. Nicholas, who the much-loved figure is based on, was a Christian saint from modern-day Turkey whose life and teachings have been lost with the commercialization of Christmas. The figure’s attire is a sign of his cold northern European heritage. The current image is hugely associated with the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which was popular in the 19th century in the US and Canada.
The history of the 4th-century Middle Eastern saint and his travels throughout Turkey, Egypt and Palestine risk vanishing as regional audiences swallow the modern iteration of Santa Claus whole. It is understood by many that the red and white corporate colors of the Coca-Cola brand have done more to establish this norm than any other.
Father Christmas had traditionally been a character clad in dark green, though with falling winter sales of their cold beverage in the 1930s, Coca-Cola decided to market the traditional figure. The talented commercial illustrator that they turned to, Haddon Sundblom, went some way to creating an image of a red Santa Claus holding bottles of red Coca-Cola.
This allowed it to become a perennial Christmas-time feature as well as spur Coca-Cola sales throughout the winter, whilst appealing strongly to children (a crucial segment of the soft-drink market).
Rather than the wholesale embracing of the globalized version of the nativity story, Arab Christians should celebrate the role of the Middle East in early Christianity.
Zaid M. Belbagi
The Christmas trees adorning central squares and retail spaces in the region are a similarly commercial and misplaced celebration of the birth of Christ. As women in Baghdad queued to purchase plastic Christmas trees from China this year, the outlandishness of the adoption of such a tradition in an Arab context was illustrated.
The Christmas tree, like many other Christmas traditions, is a creation of the Victorian era in the UK. As Queen Victoria ruled over a quarter of the world’s population and Britain was the workshop of the world, many British traditions and creations became commonplace elsewhere.
In December 1840, the queen’s husband, the German Prince Albert, imported several spruce firs from his native Coburg and had them decorated. London periodicals began a tradition of describing the decoration of the royal Christmas tree, and from the late 1850s the custom of setting up such trees in their own homes caught on with the masses in England.
As with other such traditions, the use of evergreen conifers such as spruce, pine or fir in traditional Christmas trees is reflective of its northern European traditions. The insistence of Middle Easterners to use such trees in lieu of local species reflects a cultural weakness that is only increasing with the blind adoption of foreign customs without questioning their origins.
At its core, the nativity story is one of revelation and miracle, and more importantly a narrative set in the Middle East, with its earthy protagonists an indigenous family of Semitic stock. There is much to draw from the deep traditions of Christian communities in the region for those who celebrate Christmas. The blind adoption of foreign creations, neither rooted in tradition nor religion, is a reflection of the increasing feebleness of local culture.
The role of the Middle East in early Christianity is of great importance, and celebration of this role is more critical to Arab Christians than the wholesale embracing of the globalized version of the nativity story.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid