Three Middle Eastern Christmases

Taline Voskeritchian wrote an article for the On Being blog about how her Armenian family living in Jordan celebrated three Christmases: the Western Christmas (“the Christmas of the English,” as they called it), Orthodox Christmas, and Armenian Christmas. It’s a good illustration of the many Middle Eastern Christian groups and how religion works in part as a community identity. And in a less sectarian time, Muslims could celebrate Christian holidays:

In the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, the first of three Christmas celebrations was on December 24, the Christmas of the English, or so we thought of it then in the years of my adolescence. My family — ethnic Armenians, Christians by subscription more than piety — had settled in Jordan, a largely Muslim country, where I grew into adulthood, pulled this way and that by the three Christmases of the Holy Land. Of course it was a misnomer to call it the Christmas of the English because December 24 was celebrated by Catholic and Protestant Arabs as well.

In those days, in the 1950s and 1960s, the Middle East was a very different place from what it has become of late. Unlike the Christians of Iraq today, we had little fear, did not hide our religious affiliation but did not brag about it either. In the Holy Land of those times, celebrations of Christmas were for us and Muslims, at least at our post-colonial school which had been run for many years by English missionaries; it had a mixed student body of Christians and Muslims.

For me, the home of the English Christmas was the Ahliyyah School for Girls, which I attended after third grade and all the way to the end. The Ahliyyah, which is still a thriving school, was the successor to the Christian Missionary School, whose British headmistress was whisked away in the wake of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis. The school’s name was changed, as well as the board. The Christmas celebrations persisted.

This reminds me of the description of interreligious relations in turn-of-the-century Jerusalem in a Middle East textbook that I have used, James Gelvin’s The Modern Middle East. In his description of the life of the Greek Orthodox musician Wasif Jawhariyyeh, who lived in the early 20th century, he writes that Jawhariyyeh took Quranic studies for Christians, a new discipline that emphasized studying the Quran because of its seminal role in Middle Eastern culture (2nd edition, pp. 103-104). Gelvin also writes that Christians, Jews, and Muslims shared festivals with one another:

The ceremonies and rituals of each religious group borrowed elements from the others, and the festivals celebrated by one group often marked the occasion for citywide revelry. Looking back from contemporary Jerusalem, it is hard to imagine a time when Muslim children would dress up in costumes alongside Jewish children to celebrate the Jewish feast of Purim (Jewish children joined their Muslim contemporaries as well in celebrating the festival of the prophet Muhammad), or when an Orthodox Christian musician like Jawhariyyeh  would play at Jewish weddings, or when a native Palestinian would accompany an Ashkenazi (European Jewish) choral group on his oud (a popular Middle Eastern stringed instrument). (105)

Gelvin’s characterizations are based on this article by Salim Tamari, which I hope to read soon.

It seems that part of what could underlie the interfaith celebrations is Voskeritchian’s characterization of her family as “Christians by subscription more than piety.” But there were probably other cultural forces at work, too.

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