Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Saint Barbara for Christians of the Levant: Preservation and Tradition

Halloween can be enjoyable, but Saint Barbara's Day shouldn't be overshadowed by it as it underlines the importance of making sacrifices in the name of Christianity.

Saint Barbara
Snow-covered buildings and churches in the Maronite Christian town of Besharre that overlooks the valley of Qadisha, in the Lebanese mountains north of Beirut. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK BAZ

Dana Hourany

On December 4, Christian families and communities in the Levant region of the Middle East—which includes Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria — celebrate Eid el-Barbara (Saint Barbara’s Day).

Even though the festivity and Halloween, where people dress up and collect candy from friends, relatives, and neighbors, have certain parallels, the two occasions have entirely different origins.

Halloween, which falls on October 31, is a tradition that has its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Though it has changed over time to become a holiday filled with exciting activities, masks, pumpkins, and trick-or-treating, Eid el-Barbara has retained its relevance and much of its traditions, despite the Levant’s economic woes and turmoil.

“During Eid el-Barbara, families and communities get together,” Pascale Nehme, an elementary school teacher at a Catholic school in Lebanon, told Fanack. “Most kids, ages 3 to 14, look forward to this time of year because of the variety of events that are organized for them that provide a traditional and religious alternative to Halloween both at school and at home.”

What is Eid el-Barbara?

There are numerous tellings of Saint Barbara‘s story, and most of them vary in small specifics. Barbara’s father, Dioscuros, was a well-known pagan who was born in the ancient Phoenician city of Heliopolis, now known as Baalbeck, Lebanon in the 3rd Century CE. Her overprotective father kept her in a tower where only Pagans instructors were permitted to enter. According to the mythology, her time spent alone compelled her to deep contemplation, and as a result, she discovered a mistrust of paganism.

Some sources claim that Barbara ran away from an arranged marriage to a pagan man, while others emphasize the involvement of a priest who visited Barbara’s prison, baptized her, and helped her plan her escape while disguised as a doctor.

The truth behind Barbara’s conversion to Christianity remains unknown to this day since some believe she accepted the Christian faith through personal reflection, while others claim that she was introduced to it by the same priest who orchestrated her escape.

Barbara’s father raced to slay her with a sword when he learned of his daughter’s conversion to Christianity, but she escaped and hid in nearby hills and wheat fields, or so the folk tales go.

Barbara disguised in garbs to avoid being found by her father and the Roman troops he had undoubtedly ordered to find her. Her father is said to have killed her on December 4, although she may have been kidnapped and tortured instead, according to different retellings of the story.

After numerous fruitless attempts to burn her alive, her tormentors finally turned to the sword. Eventually, they were struck by lightning, according to the tales, making Barbara a patron saint of protection from lightning and dreadful, untimely death.

In addition to being one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers” venerated collectively by Roman Catholics, Barbara is now regarded as a significant saint in the Levantine Christian tradition.

Customs and traditions

On December 4, local customs call for sowing wheat seeds (or chickpeas, barley grains, beans, lentils, etc.) on cotton wool, which are then placed below the Christmas tree once they sprout.

This is done to reenact one of Barbara’s miracles, in which it is said that wheat appeared out of nowhere to cover Barbara’s path as she fled through the fields. Once the shoots are six inches long, they are used in nativity scenes.

Among the popular foods prepared and shared to mark the occasion are atayef, a dough mixture filled with ground walnuts and sugar, or ashta (curdled cream) served with sugar syrup.

A popular dish that pays homage to the wheat fields where she hid is kamhiye, or boiled wheat with sugar topped with nuts and raisins.

The other two well-liked desserts are maakaroun, a finger-shaped semolina treat that is deep-fried and then covered in sugar syrup, and ouweymat, which is fried dough with cream inside.

The song “Heshle Barbara,” popularized by late Lebanese singer Sabah, is the celebration’s well-known anthem, sung by both children and adults as they dress in costumes and masks to represent the saint’s escape.

“Join the girls in your neighborhood and flee, Barbara. I recognized her from the curve of her bracelet, the look in her eyes, and her touch” are the lines that are repeated throughout the song.

Children, especially in Lebanon, go door to door collecting sweets and cash from houses nearby. In Syria and Palestine however, the celebrations are limited to religious centers, Christian schools, and individual households, Syrian Christian theology expert Jad Sawma told Fanack.

Celebrations across the Levant

Syria

Sawma claims that festivities in religious institutions and academic facilities are relatively new to Syria. A few years ago, Saint Barbara’s Day consisted solely of a mass and a little get-together at home.

Considering the hardships Syrian Christians have faced over the past decade, they are now marking the occasion slightly differently.

“I believe this is done to make children happy and to bring communities together,” he added.

Over 5 million Syrians have been forced to escape in search of safety as a result of the conflict, which has devastated the country.

Even though the Levant shares these customs, Sawma notes that Syria’s recent economic crisis has made it more difficult for struggling families wishing to celebrate.

Between December 2019 and December 2020, the price of essential food items increased by 236%, the Syrian pound lost 82% of its value against the dollar, and 60% of the population became food insecure.

“The childless no longer care for the celebrations and those with children worry about being able to afford costumes and sweets,” Sawma said. “Parents do their best to make sure their children are able to participate in the celebrations by turning to inexpensive costumes and making fewer desserts.”

In Syria, there are roughly 638,000 Christians, or 3.3% of the 19.6 million people who live there. The number of Christians in the nation has significantly dropped as a result of persecution and armed conflict.

Sawma believes that Saint Barbara’s Day, despite the community’s shrinking size, enables Syrian Christians to reclaim their legacy and contribute to the diversity and tradition of Syrian society.

Lebanon

Similar to Syria, Nehme points out that Lebanon’s financial crisis has resulted in a 95% devaluation of the local currency, a shortage in dollars, and skyrocketing inflation rates.

Celebrations and gatherings shrank in size as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the primary school teacher. “COVID-19 also made people weary of visiting other people’s houses and admitting family members inside their homes,” she added.

“Before the pandemic, students would dress up for class, sing, and act in little plays depicting the saint’s life. I’m not sure if this is how all Christian schools will observe the holiday this year,” she added.

Palestine

George Khoury, a theologian who emphasized the significance of this day to Palestinian Christians, claimed that children in Palestine very much look forward to celebrating it each and every year.

“Nothing will stand in the way of the festivities. The current customs have endured through the years and remain relevant. Large amounts of food will be prepared to be distributed to the communities, and for children, it is always a reason to celebrate,” Khoury said.

While Palestinian Christians were once a substantial part of the Palestinian population in this region, they now make up as little as 2% of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories, and 10% of Palestinians worldwide. The majority of believers belong to Orthodox churches, followed by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and other denominations.

Protecting culture

According to social analyst Joe Chalita, maintaining ancient traditions is crucial to preserving national and religious identity, which is under threat of extinction owing to globalization and major foreign influences.

The coming generations may stay connected to their ancestors and preserve their communities by safeguarding these customs and enriching the national culture, he says.

“If we don’t preserve our heritage, our loss will be monumental,” Chalita told Fanack. “But people always fight back, especially when the danger is near.”

In the long run, Chalita thinks that rural populations, especially those in remote villages, will be the ones to uphold customs and traditions. The responsibility to teach youngsters about Saint Barbara’s feast and other culturally and spiritually significant days falls on the shoulders of community members, especially elders.

Halloween can be enjoyable, but Saint Barbara’s Day shouldn’t be overshadowed by it, he said. It is entertaining and exciting, and the religious element adds an enriching dimension as it underlines the importance of making sacrifices in the name of Christianity.

The Middle East is where Christianity emerged, and it was in Palestine that some Jews converted to Christianity for the first time as they spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the Roman Empire and the rest of the world.

Experts concur that modest and significant Christian holidays, ranging from Saint Barbara’s Day to Christmas, continue to be important to Middle Eastern Christians who remain rooted in their tradition and culture, despite the communities’ declining numbers.