Many people in the small Texan town where I grew up didn’t know much about Lebanese culture. I was learning about my identity as a Texan with Lebanese heritage, so I did little to educate them. My mother was Lebanese and was born in Texas. Our Lebanese family had lived in Texas for over a century, and today, we still see much of our culture alive in Austin, Texas, particularly at Christmas!
Going to Austin to see my Lebanese family at Christmas was a spectacular event. The Lebanese focus is first and foremost on the family. Throughout the year, my grandparents left their front door open, and family and friends were welcome to walk in anytime to visit. Arrivals would be filled with hugs, kisses, and happy words, but my family is so large that often I couldn’t remember the name of a distant relative. My relatives would see me and say their name in greeting, “Hi, sweetie. Elizabeth!”
Christmas meant the smell of all the Lebanese spices derived from the vast amount of cooking in my grandparents’ home. My grandmother (“Mamaw“) always got out her best silver and dishes for our family feast. Kibbee, a traditional meat and bulgur dish, was always served. My Uncle Ronny once joked that going to a relative’s house for Christmas was “battle of the kibbees.” Many ladies brought their best kibbee dish, and everyone ate and compared the flavors. Of course, after dinner, various sweets were served, including baklava or other goodies such as chocolate cake!
Yesterday, I asked my mother if she could think of anything that stood out in her mind about Christmas. She said poinsettias. Poinsettias as gifts or decorations in the home are traditional for Lebanese people both in America and Lebanon. The rich red and green plants are bought in large quantities in Lebanon. Many homes have multiple poinsettia plants in various rooms.
In our family, we always had a Christmas evening dinner in Austin. In comparison, Christmas in Lebanon typically involves a large lunch the day of Christmas. This feast is called ‘Eid Milad Majid’, which is Arabic for ‘Glorious Birth Feast.’ Kibbee, a meat dish with cracked wheat, is also a staple at Christmas lunch in Lebanon. Many other delicious dishes such as tabbouleh (a parsley salad made with wheat) are served.
A Lebanon Christmas is a festive occasion with singing and dancing. A popular dance, the Dabke, involves friends and family members in a semicircle stamping their feet to some glorious Lebanese music. Dancing in Lebanon can go on for hours!
Some families join together to plant seeds in cotton prior to Christmas. Grains, sprouts or beans are planted approximately two weeks before Christmas. They are watered carefully and regularly. The new blooming shoots are placed under the Christmas tree, symbolizing new life.
Lucky children in Lebanon will see Baba Noël, who doesn’t come down the chimney; Baba Noël walks right through the front door! Presents and money are given freely to children at Christmas. Some money is taken as a gift to the church or kept to buy a treat later.
You don’t have to be from Lebanon to incorporate the festive Lebanese traditions into your holiday season. Just pick what fits best for your family, and have a lovely Christmas!