The Holiday Season in the Middle East
It’s Christmas time! As an expat, or aspiring expat, you are no doubted familiar with the typical holidays in the West. But how familiar are you with the holidays abroad? Here is a brief run-down of all the major holidays one will encounter in the Middle East, as well as what to expect if you are considering celebrating some of your own traditional holidays in this region.
The Major Islamic Celebrations
While there is greater religious diversity in the Middle East than is sometimes portrayed through the media, there is no denying that Islam is the most popular religion throughout the region. The most prominent religious season for the Muslim faithful is Ramadan. This occurred during the ninth month of the Muslim calendar; for the year 2015 this will begin on 18 June. And even though Ramadan is not a ‘holiday’ as opposed to a Holy Month in the islamic calendar, it still is a vital time for any Muslim in the Middle East and any Expat to be aware of.
Ramadan is a time in which Muslims fast from dawn to sunset. This action is meant to feel like the poor people, when they go without food or water. Therefore Muslims fast by denying themselves both food and drink. This, they believe to allow the nourishment of the soul. In addition, there are culture-specific beliefs regarding the watching of television, listening to music, and the practicing of any secular habit that does not in some way enhance spirituality.
This holiday can be a bit of a inconvenience for non-Muslims in regards to how they conduct business and everyday activities. Frequently business activities slow down or stop altogether. You will find many restaurants won’t open their doors until after the fast has broken. Many Muslims also take this time of the year as vacation time; expect many of the shops you frequently use to be closed.
The main consideration you should make as an expat during the ramadan period is it can be seen as offensive if you are openly consuming food or drink in the streets during this time. Be cautious of whom you are eating around at work as many companies have designated eating rooms to prevent this public eating.
Ramadan and its fasting does not last forever. It is celebrated with Eid al-Fitr, or “the Feast of Breaking the Fast.” This is a day when Muslims around the world show a common goal of unity. In places such as Saudi Arabia, it is celebrated with great pomp and circumstance with feasts and even fireworks. Gifts are given as generous gestures.
Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, is an Islamic holiday that commemorates the Prophet Abraham’s willingness to obey Allah by sacrificing his son Ishmael. The holiday begins on the tenth day of Dhu’l-Hijja, the last month of the Islamic calendar; this corresponds with 23 September 2015. Lasting for three days, it occurs at the conclusion of the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
According to the Qur’an, just before Abraham sacrificed his son, Allah replaced Ishmael with a ram, thus sparing Ishmael’s life. Therefore, the festival is celebrated by sacrificing a lamb or other animal and distributing the meat to relatives, friends, and the poor. This sacrifice symbolizes obedience to Allah; distribution to others is an expression of generosity, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Christmas in the Middle East
As mentioned previously, Islam is not the sole religion found in the Middle East. With minority Christian populations dispersed through the region, there is of course the practice of Christmas in small segments of the region. However, Christmas is certainly practiced in a manner not found in the majority of the West.
In Iraq, Christmas is known as the Little Feast; Easter, of course, is considered the Great Feast. Christians here fast from December 1 until Christmas Eve. They consume no meat, eggs, milk, or cheese. After the evening church service, however, a great feast begins. Unlike in the West, there is no gift exchange practice here.
Syrian Christians celebrate Christmas longer than most Middle Eastern countries. Celebrations begin on December 4, St. Barbara’s Day, and last through Epiphany on 6 January 6. Children receive gifts not on 25 December, but on New Year’s Day from the Camel of Jesus.
One tradition, left over from the days of religious persecution in Syria, is to lock the outside gate of the house on Christmas Eve. This is to remind all that they once had to practice their religion behind closed doors. The patron of the home lights a great fire in the courtyard, the youngest son reads from the Gospel, and hymns are sung. After the fire has been reduced to embers, family members make a wish and jump over them.
Places such as the UAE where there is a strong majority of western expats are very open to Christmas celebrations but warn expats to ensure to partake in christmas festivities in accordance with UAE law. The British Embassy posted their own version of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to help people understand about the UAE traditions so as to not dampen your own festivities. Read the poem here.
No matter where you go in the Middle East, Christmas maintains its religious heritage more so than the commercialistic value it has developed in Europe and North America- although Dubai has seen some efforts to provide some of those elements to the celebrations. . The “reason for the season” attitude is much more prevalent than what one may be accustomed to.