Friday, December 24, 2004

How Christmas Works In Iraq

I was going to write about the difficulties facing Iraqi Christians this year. Then, read Dilnareen's post and thought she's right. Let's forget about war and talk about Christmas during perfect times. I moved my Christmas post from last year here. This way, people new to this blog would have the chance to read about Iraqi-Christians' Christmas traditions.

One thing I noticed, many Iraqi-Christians are turning Christmas into a commercial festival of Santa Claus and gifts exchange. I'm not against dear Santa. He really works hard during Christmas season. But, I like the "Pure Christmas." The Christmas I remember from when I lived in Iraq.

As Fr. Yousif said in his e-mail to me:

In this Christmas, nobody can be more near the first Christmas as the Iraqis. Cold, fear, strangers, but we know the Lord is between us, this is our joy and hope.

Merry Christmas everyone and enjoy the reading.

ORIGINAL POST: 12/22/2003
American Christmas preparations are more simple than Iraqi preparations.

Most Iraqi Christians, Assyrians in special, would fast from December 1st until Christmas day. Almost every year, I fast the week before Christmas. Christmas feels different when I fast. Christmas in the Middle East is more spiritual than the commercial Western Christmas.

For at least two weeks before Christmas in Iraq, Christian families shop for koleicha (Christmas sweets) ingredients. Iraqi Christian women are so proud of their secret recipes to make the best koleicha. Ingredients would include white flour -- French white flour was always the best. Fillings include walnuts, dates and a special kind of filling made of butter, sugar, flour and special spices. Each woman has her own secrets on how to make the best dough for their koleicha and will not reveal it to anyone. Yes, it's a family recipe secret.

Now, you would think our mothers would settle for a pound or two of flour. Hell no. My mom's standard was 20-30 pounds of flour when we were still a big family. After my brothers and sisters left the country, my mom reduced her standard to 7-10 pounds.

To make all this amount of sweets you better have good friends and relatives to help you with your big koleicha day. This is how it works: friends and relatives that you could count on would decide a schedule, so you could help them the day they make theirs in return for their help to you. My task changed from one year to another. I always found the easiest task to do -- like cooking lunch for these hard working women. My mom -- being my mom -- would always keep the cooking sheets for me to clean after all is done. Great. I can't complain anyway.

The next episode is to give a plate of koleicha to your neighbors. If you are working, another plate goes to your colleagues at work. My Muslim friends would get their share too as I WANTED my share during their Eid. The postman and trash collector were always on our list of "who gets koleicha this year?"

This happened every year of my life -- even during worst years of Iran-Iraq war in Basrah. For Iraqi Christians, Christmas is not Christmas if you don't make koleicha.

The few days before Christmas are devoted for cleaning the house and putting up the Christmas tree. This part of Christmas is identical to Christmas in any other part of the world, except we don't exchange gifts. Good plan. You could keep your budget under control during Christmas.

The most popular Iraqi Christian food for Christmas is pascha. Well, this is one other food not easy to make and our mothers would not allow anyone to help them with preparing this meal, another family recipe secret.

Most people would go to the midnight mass, come home and break their fast with eating pascha. I think that's the best part of Christmas, and I really miss it. These masses are very long (about 2 to 3 hours). Me and my sister, who moved to America after she got married, would attend the last mass on Christmas day. This is usually the shortest mass. It has a disadvantage though. You can't eat your favorite pascha until you come back home from church. It is kind of a temptation so you would have something to tell the priest if you ever go to confession on Christmas day.

We have many churches in Iraq where Christian populations are high. In Basrah, we have two Catholic churches, Latins, Syrian Catholic and others have their own churches too. Baghdad has lots of churches as most Christians lives in Baghdad. Mosul, Dehuk, Sulaymania, Arbil and kirkuk governorates have their own share of churches.

Christians make 3% of Iraq's population. The most popular sector is the Chaldean Catholic church, which is a branch of the Roman Catholic Church.

The family usually gathers for Christmas lunch at the parents house. You would invite a family or two that would invite you for next Christmas lunch.

OK, now you think by this we're over with Christmas and could have some rest. No, so far we had "The Fellowship Of The Food". Playing next at a home near you, we have the sequel, "Return of The Christmas Visits".

Every Christmas, the parents would make sure they remember which families visited us first, and which families didn't visit last Christmas and were supposed to visit. People who visit includes best friends, family members, uncles, aunts and sometimes first cousins. This works exactly like Christmas cards work in Western countries. If someone visits you this Christmas, you return their visit this Christmas. If someone didn't visit you last Christmas, you actually don't visit them this Christmas. You have from Christmas day till 6th of January to finish this task.

Let me tell you, this is not an easy task if you have a big family like mine. I used to escape most of this exercise by staying home with my grandma, also to take care of any visitors while my parents are visiting other families.

Christian Iraqis in Australia haven't changed much of these traditions after moving to Australia except that Australian Christmas is during summer and pascha is not a favorable meal for hot weather.

So, anytime you think your Christmas is full of stress, just appreciate not living in Iraq were there are two many things to do.

I love Christmas in Dallas, all I have to do is buy gifts, wrap them, put them under the tree, attend Christmas mass and have dinner with my family-in-law. How hard is that compared to Big Fat Iraqi Christmas.

Have a nice Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah everyone.

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