With faith & hope: Christmas traditions survive in Baghdad
November 27, 2007
CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq - According to Christian belief, in the first century the Saint Thomas evangelized the region we today call Iraq. An estimated 600,000 Christians live in this country of 22 million people.
Despite being in a primarily Islamic, war-torn country, Christians across the Baghdad manage to hold on to Christmas by remembering how it was and keeping the holiday alive with plenty of traditions.
Although Christmas was much simpler when he was living in the Iraqi capital, Ned Saigh, an Iraqi-American who grew up in Baghdad, said that celebrating it here was a joyous occasion. He said that whole communities and neighborhoods were involved in the open festivities.
"You can feel it more. It's more traditional. It's more family oriented. You can feel it in the air. Muslims used to celebrate Christmas with the Christians," Saigh said as he recalled 'the good ol' days.' "They used to show their affections to the Christians, wishing us a 'Merry Christmas.'"
There were many similarities between Christmas in the United States and Iraq. Children were afforded about a week off from school and Christian Iraqis were also given a couple of days off work to enjoy the holiday.
"It was a nice time of the year, when you don't go to school," he recalled.
One thing Saigh's family did in preparation for Christmas was create a three-dimensional model of the nativity scene, a representation of the birthplace of Jesus.
"When you walk in you can tell when you go into a house that there was celebration," Saigh said. "The size of (the nativity) depends on how much money you want to spend, whether it's a small house or big house, the size of the room."
Saigh, who calls Detroit home now, said that just like Christians in the western world, Iraqi Christians celebrated the idea of 'Papa Noel,' also known as Santa Claus.
The 64-year-old explained that traditions like Santa Claus found its way to Iraq through missionaries and Iraqi Christians who traveled to places such as Europe and Lebanon bringing back with them western beliefs.
Common to any celebration, food was also a major part of Christmas for Iraqis.
"The women were busy in the kitchen making all kinds of pastries, cakes, special foods," he said. "There weren't any machines and people use to do everything by hand, which made for great homemade dishes."
Another thing that coincides with holiday celebration is being around family, but there were slight social differences. Saigh said that usually the men traveled from one place to another visiting friends and family to wish them a merry Christmas over some drinks, while the women stayed at home to entertain guests and make food.
"You would see people all over Baghdad visiting people," he said. "Gifts were laid underneath the tree for the children, while adults enjoyed conversation. For most Christian families, after the food, it was off to church."
Catholic churches were scattered throughout the city. Saigh said that he and other Iraqi Christians would attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of the savior.
Today, the spirit of Christmas is still very much alive in Iraq, but silently tucked away in the safety of private homes because of the security situation many Iraqis face on a day-to-day basis.
The presence of Islamic extremists in some areas of Iraq caused church bells to go silent, as church crosses were taken down. However, in rare areas with a higher concentration of Christians bells still ring on special occasions like Christmas.
"Many people don't go to church any more in Baghdad. They are fearful because of the security and the fanatics," he said. "You still have the feeling of Christmas, but there is some sadness to it at the same time."
Since the fall of the ex-regime, although most of the fighting occurs between Sunnis and Shia Muslims, Saigh said anti-Christian anger has increased steadily and after comments by Pope Benedict XVI connected Iraq's violence to the prophet Muhammad's teachings, a prominent priest in northern Baghdad was kidnapped by extremists and later found beheaded sending a clear sign.
Saigh said he had spoken to an old friend, who told him that she and her kids saw a car hijacked in front of her house and the man taken captive. He said people are afraid because of the dangers that are too close for comfort.
Although faith and Christmas is still thriving in Christian households across this middle-eastern country, Saigh said today it's more guarded.
"I sympathize with them. If we, as Americans, can do something for them we should. I don't want to see them all leave this country," he said. "They say 'We can't live here. We want to leave,' and if they leave, Christianity will be over in this part of the world. It would be a shame for it to disappear from this part of the world when it was here where Christianity began."
Saigh said that despite the mountains that stand in the way of Christians in this region, their faith hasn't been stronger.
"Especially in the youth," he said. "They are inspirational people who practice their faith more in the face of all these hardships. There is something extremely admirable about that."