As the UK prepares to celebrate Christmas, Open Doors shares how Christians in countries on the Open Doors World Watch List celebrate the festive season and asks people to remember their struggles this Christmas.
CHRISTMAS IN IRAQ
The majority of Iraqi Christians celebrate Christmas on 25 December, though some celebrate on 7 January according to the Orthodox calendar. Areen* told Open Doors how Christmas is celebrated in Iraq: “Despite the wars, the forced displacement, the bombing of many churches and the suffering of the population, Christians in Iraq stayed faithful to their traditions every year. They consider this feast as a hopeful message of salvation to humanity because of the birth of the Saviour, Jesus. Christmas is a day full of joy, love, kindness and family meetings.”
On Christmas Eve, Christian families gather in the church square for a bonfire. “The fire is called Tahra,” said Areen. “That word means ‘astonishment’. The fire is in the middle of the church square; the believers stand around it and deacons hold lighted candles. People sing hymns of praise in the Aramaic language. The priest carries an image or statue of baby Jesus. This traditional celebration expresses the joy the child brought to humanity.”
Churches hold midnight mass and exchange their Christmas wishes with each other. “Some churches in Iraq are unable to hold the midnight mass because of the security situation,” said Areen. “On Christmas morning, Christians usually go to church in their new clothes. Families, friends and relatives meet in the churchyard to distribute sweets and exchange Christmas wishes and blessings.”
Iraq is 8 on the Open Doors World Watch List.
CHRISTMAS IN SYRIA
Syria’s seven year conflict has changed the way Christians celebrate Christmas. Before the war, in Christian areas, people would put lights on their houses and balconies. “Then people were afraid of having their buildings spotted and targeted at night,” said one Christian man.
With so-called Islamic State largely defeated, many celebrations have started again. In 2017 northern Aleppo’s annual lighting of the Christmas tree was resumed. This year, Christmas trees will be lit in both Aleppo and in Syria’s Mediterranean coastal city Latakia.
Damascus’ Choir of Joy, established in 1977, will hold their annual concert. Father Elias Zahlawi began the choir to create a musical culture of peace and harmony. He says that the choir is a reminder that that as Christians, “We’re here. We exist”. Rehearsals have been cancelled in the past due to shelling. This year, donations will be gathered to distribute to struggling families.
Pastor Edward of Damascus’s Alliance Church said: “The people want to have parades, they want to have Santa Claus, they want to have big parties, and especially now following the difficult years. The government gives us all the freedom to celebrate and supports such celebrations, which is good, which is amazing. But the challenge is really to bring up the real message of Christmas, the message of love, the message of incarnation.”
In the north east of Syria tension still exists between government forces and Kurdish militants. Families are under great pressure economically and Christians are divided between supporting the Kurdish government or the Syrian government. “There’s a sense of hardship in the atmosphere,” said Father Nidal of Hasakah. “Even though the authorities here respect our traditions and celebrations, people are still feeling some kind of heaviness on their shoulders. We’re trying to bring some joy to the children though by arranging activities and gifts for them; and, at least, people are decorating outside.”
Syria is 15 on the Open Doors World Watch List.
Watch: Pastor Abdalla describes how Christians in Aleppo are still sharing the message of Christmas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fF_uHS4qXtg
Pastor Edward, an Open Doors local church partner from Damascus, Syria, shares his hopes for Syria this Christmas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaaOhWFJ1hw
CHRISTMAS IN NIGERIA
According Isaac* a Christian in Kaduna State, Northern Nigeria, Christmas is about celebrating and it’s not just for Christians: “We buy new clothes for our children and we gather money and buy a cow and slaughter it and have a celebration with our friends, non-believers come too. We go to the church we rejoice together. We have some traditions, like a husband feeds his wife and children bow down in front of their parents to show respect to them.”
Much like Christians in the UK the message of Christmas can get lost in the celebrations: “My wish is that people will know the meaning of Christmas so that they tell others about it, said Isaac. “I pray that everyone worldwide will know the meaning of Christmas as celebrate it the way God wants it to be. Also let’s pray for peace in Nigeria. We have so many disturbance. Pray God will bring peace to our country.”
Nigeria is 14 on the Open Doors World Watch List.
CHRISTMAS IN INDIA
Open Doors regularly receives reports of Christmas celebrations being interrupted in India particularly in states such as Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. This does not deter Christians from celebrating. “one of the best things about growing up in India is all the holidays and its celebration. As a multicultural country, all festivals are celebrated with lots of gusto,” One Christian told Open Doors. “Apart from other religions India is home to a considerable population of Christians, who, along with the rest of the country, celebrate Christmas with their own rituals and traditions.”
The North-eastern region of India is a home to many thousands of Christians. In tribal Christian communities the days before and after Christmas are marked by dances, musical concerts and games. People set off firecrackers and make traditional foods. They also wear new clothes on Christmas day and churches host feasts for the whole community.
“Villagers also play a special game during Christmas,” said Ruth “A bamboo pole is used to hang both money and meat together. Teams are required to climb up the pole which is greased using pork fat.”
In traditional Christian households in South India, preparations for Christmas begin at least a month in advance. People whitewash and clean their houses thoroughly. Christmas cake which is shared among the neighbours is started months in advance and anxiously awaited by all.
“There’s lots of shopping as everyone buys new clothes for the festival,” Ruth said. “Gifts are also bought for friends, relatives and kids in the family. Those that work or study in the city come back home to spend the holiday with their family.
“Christians light clay lamps on the rooftops and walls of their houses and decorate their homes with banana or mango leaves. Some also put up a nativity scene with clay figures or a Christmas tree – imitation pine trees or branches of native trees or bushes.”
India in 11 on the Open Doors World Watch List.
*Name changed to protect identity