ASSYRIA

The Assyrians, the indigenous people of northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey that belong to the Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church, and Chaldean Catholic Church today celebrate Christmas on December 25. Assyrians colloquially call Christmas Eda Zora, meaning “”little holiday.”” It is officially called Eda d’Yalde which means “”birthday holiday.”” Traditionally, Assyrians fast (sawma) from December 1 until Christmas Day. In Iraq, for instance, on Christmas Eve, Assyrian families congregate outside of their house and hold lighted candles while a child reads aloud the nativity story. Then they all sing psalms over a bonfire made of thorn bushes. Folklore says that if the thorns burn to ashes, the family will have good luck. After the fire has been reduced to ashes, the family members will jump three times over the ashes and make a wish. The next day, on Christmas, “”as another bonfire burns in the churchyard, the bishops lead the service while carrying a figure of the baby Jesus. He blesses one person with a touch. That person touches the next person and the touch passes around until all have felt the touch of peace.””

Many Assyrians will attend the Shaharta, or midnight vigil before Christmas. On Christmas Day, when families gather together after the Shaharta or morning mass, raza d’mowlada d’maran, the fast is broken by eating traditional Assyrian foods such as pacha/reesh-aqle (meaning “”from the head to the tail””), which is a boiled soup made of sheep or cow intestines, tongue, stomach, legs, and spices or harissa, a porridge made of ground wheat and chicken (both dishes are prepared usually overnight). These two dishes are only made twice a year: on Christmas and Easter. Traditional desserts eaten after the main course include Killeche, a date and walnut-stuffed cookie, and Kadeh, another stuffed pastry. After the feast is finished, Assyrians will visit the houses of family and friends to exchange Christmas greetings, saying, “”Eedokhon breekha,”” meaning “”May your feast be blessed.”” There, the host will serve tea, Turkish coffee, and Killeche and Kadeh to guests. Although Christmas is celebrated in a much more religious fashion, in recent years, families put up a small Christmas tree in the house.

People in Serbia also celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day, but on the 19th December. During the time when Serbia was under communist control (after World War II until about 20 years ago), the communist government didn’t like St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, so they had their own version called Grandfather Frost (Дедa Мрaз / Deda Mraz) or Christmas Brother (Божић Бата / Božić Bata), who came on New Year’s Eve. Traditional Serbian customs have also mixed with western customs. For example people also have Christmas Trees but they are decorated on New Year’s Eve, not at Christmas.

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