Christmas in the MR

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Both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are national holidays in the Monastic Republic. If Christmas falls on a Sunday, then the day after Christmas is also a national holiday. Of course, the schools are closed until January 2nd. The Christmas customs in the MR can be described as of Lebanese origin, of Greek origin, or of a communal nature.

  • Home celebrations
    • Lebanese
      • About two weeks before Christmas, the people plant seeds of chickpeas, wheat grains, beans and lentils in cotton wool. The seeds are watered every day and by Christmas, they usually have shoots that are as high as six inches. These shoots are then used to surround the manger in the Nativity scenes. Although the figures in the scene can be beautiful works of art made from wood, ivory, stone, porcelain, etc., often times they are made simply from brown paper. A star is suspended over the scene of Christ's birth. The Christmas tree has not been popularized in the Monastic Republic, partly because of the ban on harvesting trees and partly because the Nativity scene is felt to confer a blessing on the family.
      • Christmas Eve is the last day of the Advent fast. After a simple meal, the family open their presents. Then most of the people go to bed to be ready for the midnight festivities.
      • Those who are able attend midnight Mass, celebrated by the abbot of St. Maroun Monastery or his delegate.
      • Christmas day is a day for visiting friends, both Lebanese and Greek. Coffee, liqueurs (the Monastic Republic’s famous citrus-flavored and chestnut liqueurs) and sugared almonds are served to the guests.
      • Mid-afternoon is the time for the festive Christmas meal. Most often a family is gathered at the home of the eldest living member of the family, a grandparent or an eldest son.
      • The traditional Christmas dishes are chicken, rice and kubbeh, a delicacy prepared from crushed bulgur wheat mixed with chevon, onion, salt and pepper. Dessert is the traditional Bûche de Noël, a French Christmas cake decorated to look like a yule log.
      • If a child, boy or girl, has been born into the family during the season of Advent, a pudding called mughly is made. It is made of rice flour, caraway, sugar and other spices, put into small dishes, and topped with raisins and crushed nuts. This pudding is served to the family at the Christmas meal, as well as to visitors who come visiting during the morning visits.
      • After dark on both Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany, the family gathers around the Nativity scene to pray the rosary.
    • Greek
      • A period of fasting lasts from November 15th to Christmas Eve, when no meat, fish, eggs or dairy products are eaten.
      • The main symbol of the season is a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire suspended across the rim. From that hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. A small amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day, a family member, usually the mother, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house. This ritual is believed to keep the κιλαντζάρι, kilantzari, (bad spirits) away. There are a number of beliefs connected with these spirits, which are a species of goblins who appear only during the twelve-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany (January 6).
      • Mid-afternoon is the time for the festive Christmas meal. Most often a family is gathered at the home of eldest living member of the family, a grandparent or an eldest son.
      • The main attraction of the meal is cabrito or chevon roasted in ovens or on spits. On the table are loaves of χριςτοψώμ, christopsom, (“Christ bread”). This bread is made in large sweet loaves of various shapes. The crusts are engraved and decorated in some way that reflects the family's profession(s).
      • On the day after Christmas, the children travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing ĸάλαντα, kalanda, the equivalent of Christmas carols, accompanying themselves with small metal triangles and little clay drums. Afterwards, the children are usually given sweets or coins in appreciation. Several times during the Christmas season, the children visit the hospital and the nursing home to sing ĸάλαντα.
      • Gifts are exchanged on St. Basil's Day (January 1). On this day the "renewal of waters" takes place, a ritual in which any containers of water in the house are emptied and refilled with fresh water, the new "St. Basil's Water."
  • Public celebrations
    • There are no street light poles in the MR. Each residence and business has a lamp attached to the front wall of the house/business next to the gate. From these decorated evergreen wreaths are hung on the First Sunday of Advent. They are taken down after the Feast of the Epiphany.
    • At midnight the bells of the two churches are rung for five minutes.
    • After midnight Mass has ended, a large bonfire is lit in the public square, weather permitting. Men from the demes, with the permission of the Holy Synod, went into the forest during Advent and gathered up the deadfall. Each year the deadfall is taken from the land of a different monastery. The Archimandrite is present to light the Christmas bonfire. Since he cannot be at the bonfires of the three demes at one time, he delegates others to light two of the bonfires, he himself rotating his presence from year to year.
    • After the bonfire is lit, there is singing and dancing. Special dances called dabkeh are danced with the men and women, boys and girls holding hands in semi-circles and dancing to special music. Those dancing wear special colorful clothes and head covers.
    • After about two hours of singing and dancing and telling stories, dancers from the Mt. Athos Dance Troupe dance for the assembled people.
    • When the dancers have finished the performance, the people go home to rest up for the activities of Christmas Day.
    • Merry Christmas in Arabic: Mīlād Majīd, ‘Glorious Birth.’
    • Merry Christmas in Greek: Καλά Χριστούγεννα, Kalá Christoúgenna, or, in Athonite: Καλ Χριςτούγεν, Kal Christoúgen.
    • Happy New Year in Greek: Καλή Χρονιά, Kalí Chroniá, or, in Athonite: Καλ Xρoνí, Kal Chroní.
    • During the Christmas holiday, which lasts from December 24 until January 6, it is customary to wish "Χρόνια Πολλά, Chrónia Pollá (many years)" to those you meet. In Athonite that is Πολ Χρόνι, Pol Chróni. So, if you meet someone in the morning, the proper way to greet him is: Καλιμέρ, Πολ Χρονί, Kalimér, Pol Chróni! (Good morning, many years).
    • Happy New Year in Arabic: Kul 'am wa ant-a (-um) bikhair.
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