The Never Ending Holidays

Christmas, Epiphany, then Christmas again, then Christmas #3(!), next the Prophet’s Birthday. The holidays never end here in Lebanon.

I like it that way – I love how festive the city feels during the holiday season, whether the streets are hung with lanterns and silver moons for Ramadan or fairy lights for Christmas. Myself I love celebrating Christmas starting at the first Sunday in Advent (four Sundays before Christmas) all the way through the famed 12th day of Christmas (January 6). Also known as Epiphany. few people observe the last day of Christmas in the US, but in Latin America (where we lived for 8 years), it is the day the Three Kings arrived bearing gifts for baby Jesus – children set out their shoes or stockings the night of the 5th for those final Christmas gifts and treats. In Italy (where my husband’s from), Epifania is when La Befana arrives. The Befana is a crotchety old witch who declined joining the Three Kings’ procession when they passed her house on their way to Bethlehem, and in regret, piled her basket high with treats and presents for baby Jesus, and flies on her broom during the night of January 5th each year, leaving gifts for children around Italy (and in Italian homes around the world) in the hopes that one of them might be the special baby.

Today is the 8th, and it seemed time to take the tree down.

I felt sad to see the festive season end. Christmas decorations are still up around the city of Beirut however – because the Armenians (which ethnically make a large number of Lebanese) just celebrated their Christmas on January 6th (and who knew, but apparently that was the date Christmas was celebrated for the first four centuries A.D.) .

“Oh that’s right,” I said to my husband, “It’s the Orthodox Christmas.”

“Well, Eastern Orthodox,” he corrected me. “Greek Orthodox celebrate their Christmas the same time as Catholics and Protestants.”

Ah no, it turns out: Greek Orthodox do celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but Eastern Orthodox celebrate on January 7th. If that weren’t confusing enough, I found out that Ethiopians (of which there are a huge number in Lebanon, working primarily as household helpers, and are a mix of Orthodox and Protestant) also celebrate Christmas on January 7th. I wondered if I should give the day off to the lady who works for our family, so that she could celebrate.

“It’s okay, we are going to celebrate on Sunday [the 12th] since everyone else has to work,” she informed me.

So Christmas celebrations in Lebanon will wind up on the 12th, just in time to get ready for the first Muslim holiday of the year, the Prophet’s Birthday, which falls on January 13. (My kids are really loving all the school holidays!)

I came across this map yesterday, which didn’t really help clear anything up for me, but did make me feel like it was excusable to be a little confused about religion in Lebanon once in a while.

Just look how colorful Lebanon is!

This map is titled “The Levant: Ethnic Composition”. (The Levant is the region encompassing Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.) As explained in the column of dense text to the right of the map, they use ethnicity to refer to group identity, which includes religion as a factor, and the biggest divisions are identified on this map. The used here divisions are debatable (are the Druze not Arabs? are all Christians in the Levant non-Arabs? the answer to these questions depends on who you ask – for what geneticists have to say about it, see my earlier post here). But this map nonetheless gives an idea of the religious diversity of the region. Think how colorful it would be if it were further broken down from “Levantine (Christian)” to “Eastern Orthodox” and “Western Orthodox”, “Catholic” and “Protestant”.

This map was number 32 in Max Fisher’s collection for the Washington Post of “40 Maps That Explain the World.” Looking at the jumble of color and diversity that this map illustrates, I suppose it comes as no surprise that a battle drawn along religious lines has no end in sight.

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