​​Five Lebanese Christmas traditions — and a very cute Syrian one

From a gift-bearing little camel to a beautiful martyr-saint, we journey through Lebanon’s (and Syria’s) beloved Yuletide traditions.

​​Five Lebanese Christmas traditions — and a very cute Syrian one

Christmas decorations in Beirut. (Credit: João Sousa/L'Orient Today)

BEIRUT — In many secular, Lebanese Christian and other faith households alike, Christmas occupies a special place: Christmas lights wrap around trees, lighting up streets lined with nativity scenes. A Christmas tree lights up a room, loved ones exchange gifts, and feasts shared among people often lead to a food-induced coma. The country’s Christmas traditions are as varied as they are festive, from seasonal treats to widespread religious customs.

Historically rooted in both northern Europe’s winter solstice festival of lights and an apparent blend between the hedonistic Roman Saturnalia celebration and the Dec. 25 birthday of Mithra, the infant god of the unconquerable sun, who was born out of a rock, Christmas over time evolved into the worldwide phenomenon it is today. A carnival of consumerism to some, the birthday of a savior to many and a family festivity to most, Christmas traditions are here to stay regardless. Beyond their permanence, the journey of their evolution differs as some parts are homegrown while others are distinctly imported. Although that Lebanese je ne sais quoi gives Christmas a uniquely national expression, celebrated by people across the social spectrum, a more profound and global history hides behind these colorful local expressions.

Here are five Lebanese Christmas traditions and the legends that inspired them:

Saint Barbara’s seeds

One of the first notable Christmas traditions happens before Christmas on the feast of Saint Barbara, known in Arabic as Eid-ul Burbura. On Dec. 3, people plant wheat seeds in honor of Saint Barbara, who was hidden in a wheat field while running away from her father.

Over time, wheat grains were joined by lentils, chickpeas and others on a bed of cotton. When the seeds sprout and grow, they earn a spot under the Christmas tree, next to the nativity scene.

Legend goes that some 1,700 years ago, a beautiful girl named Barbara was born in Baalbeck, Roman-run Heliopolis at the time. The daughter of a rich merchant, she was said to be so sublimely stunning that her father, Dioscorus, felt compelled to hide her from the adoring eyes of others by locking her up inside a tower (this is believed to have served as an inspiration for the German tale, Rapunzel, and shares several similarities with the Persian legend of Rudaba).

In her seclusion, Barbara began to marvel at the meandering meadows by day and the shimmering sky by night, causing her to curiously contemplate the origin of life and its creator, which set the tone for her impending conversion.

Her imprisonment did not stand in the way of tales about her beauty being spun around the city, leading to a litany of marriage proposals which were all met with a resounding no from her. Her father, worried that her seclusion impacted her too much, allowed her to step outside the tower. Barbara took advantage of this leniency and decided to flee, meeting on her journey Christian maids who inspired her decision to be baptized into a new faith.

After news reached him of his daughter’s baptism, her father imprisoned her yet again with the added punishment of torture. Miraculously, any wounds inflicted would always be healed by the following morning.

One fateful day, the young woman finally managed to escape, cunningly avoiding capture by using disorienting disguises. While on the run, she relied on the kindness of strangers, knocking on doors and being given harvested wheat and pomegranates to eat. Her freedom was short-lived as she was soon captured again and beheaded by her father, who later met his demise when he was struck by lightning.


It is only natural that meghli (which means boiled), or karawiyah, a creamy dessert sprinkled with nuts, traditionally served in Levantine households to celebrate the birth of a baby, would also be served on the day the most important baby in Christian history was born.

The powdered brownish rice pudding, flavored with different spices, such as anise, cinnamon and caraway, is usually garnished with pistachio, pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, raisins and grated or chopped coconut. Some say meghli is brown like the soil and that the nuts, like seeds sprouted from the earth, symbolize rebirth.

The association with birth might also have to do with the ingredients themselves, which are all believed to be beneficial to baby and mother. Caraway and anise are traditional home remedies for milk production, while cinnamon sweetens the milk. The mixture of nuts, full of protein, is known to help with restoring strength and energy.

The nutritional health benefits of rice pudding have been known since as early as 6,000 BCE, as it was included in the Ancient Indian Ayurveda diet. While meghli is uniquely Levantine, the Levant is not the only region where rice pudding is considered a Christmas staple: in Denmark there’s an added tradition where whoever finds the one almond hidden in the pudding will be lucky all year.

Nativity scene set in a cave rather than a stable

The debate about the physical surroundings of Jesus’ birth (a cave, a stable or perhaps even a room in a house) rages on — some say there is still no conclusive answer.

As with many other traditions, Lebanon follows the French tradition: the créche is placed in a cave. The crèche often serves as a makeshift altar, where families gather to pray during the season. Plenty of research, scholarly and otherwise, seems to suggest that the “cave theory” is the more plausible one.

As recently as 2014, in a story by The Guardian, British evangelical scholar Rev. Ian Paul revived an ancient theory that Jesus was not, in fact, born in a stable and that it was a misreading of the New Testament. He explained that, at the time, Palestinian families were known to live in “a single-room house, with a lower compartment for animals to be brought in at night, and either a room at the back for visitors, or space on the roof. The family living area would usually have hollows in the ground, filled with straw, in the living area, where the animals would feed.”

Similarly, in a 1987 Chicago Tribune article by Jonathan Broder, we meet Mohammed — a 17-year-old shepherd who lives in a cave near Bethlehem with his parents and five brothers and sisters, surrounded by similar caves that have been occupied for 3,000 years.

The high-ceilinged cavern where Mohammed lives has a man-made upper area, called a mastaba, where the family sleeps and eats while their animals dwell on the lower level. Mohammed told the Chicago Tribune: “The animals make it warm for the people, and the people make it warm for the animals.”

The layout of the cave is similar to the description of the location of Jesus’ birth: when Mary and Joseph arrived at the (cave) house, the “upper room” was already crowded with family members, so they were given space in the warm lower room, with the animals who are still part of the nativity scene, Rev. Paul reiterates in a 2021 article.

He adds that the idea Jesus was born in a stable stems from “ traditional elaboration; issues of grammar and meaning; and unfamiliarity with first-century Palestinian culture.”

Meanwhile, UNESCO describes Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, one of its World Heritage sites, as “one particular cave, over which the first Church was built … traditionally believed to be the birthplace itself.”

Even the purported first ever nativity scene, staged by Saint Francis of Assisi in Greccio, about an hour from Rome, was a “magic grotto excavated into the stone” on Christmas Eve in the year 1223.

Le panier des pauvres

“The basket of the poor” is a common and comforting sight in Lebanese houses during Christmas. The seven foods chosen to be part of the basket prepared by the household each represent a day of the week, and offering them to visitors is a way of wishing them a New Year filled with prosperity.

Some say that this basket symbolizes the offerings of the Magi to Jesus. The basket usually contains a mixture of several kinds of nuts, including almonds and chestnuts, dates, raisins and dried apricots, cranberries and prunes.

Poinsettia — ‘the Christmas star’

In Lebanon, the poinsettia plant is gifted to friends and family over Christmas. An old Mexican legend illustrates how poinsettias and Christmas came to be irrevocably linked: there was once a poor Mexican girl nicknamed Pepita who had no present to give the baby Jesus at the Christmas Eve services.

As Pepita sadly walked to the chapel, her cousin Pedro tried to cheer up her empty handed woes. “Pepita, I’m sure that even the smallest gift, given by someone who loves him, will make Jesus happy,” said Pedro. Pepita, who was left hopeless after a fruitless search for a gift, settled for a humble yet, in her eyes, embarrassing bouquet of handpicked roadside weeds.

Remembering Pedro’s guidance, she took her gift to the chapel, knelt down and placed it at the nativity scene. To her surprise, the weeds burst into a miraculous blossom of bright red flowers, earning the moniker “Flowers of the Holy Night.”

Originally called “cuetlaxochitl” by the Aztecs and originally found in the southern Mexican town Taxco del Alarcon, the poinsettia plants made their way to their English namesake’s greenhouses in South Carolina during the 1820s. The first US ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett, was an amateur botanist with a specific fervor for one particular plant he would often send to friends and family.

Poinsett cultivated this deeply red flower with purple hues, and their reception did not stop at US botanical gardens. The flower later became an economic sensation: in 2014, more than 70 million poinsettias were sold every six weeks with a value of US$250 million and over 100 US patents on unique poinsettia species.

The poinsettia’s commercial power weaved the plant into the fabric of many cultures, earning a set of names around the world such as Catarina, Flor de la Nochebuena (the Christmas Eve Flower), the Christmas Star and, in Turkey, Ataturk’s Flower.

The ubiquity of the poinsettia was given further religious importance by associating its appearance to the Star of Bethlehem and its color to the blood of Christ, while Franciscan Friars have incorporated poinsettias into Christmas activities, such as processions, since the 1600s.

And one very cute Syrian Christmas tradition

Since there are currently some 839,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon, it would be remiss not to mention one especially lovely Syrian Christmas tradition. As the legend goes, the youngest and smallest camel carrying the Three Wise Kings, or Magi, who were guided by the star to visit the baby Jesus was so exhausted by the long journey that he collapsed.

Jesus is said to have blessed this poor, tired camel with immortality. As some Syrian Christian children believe that, rather than Santa, this tiny immortal camel brings them gifts on Christmas morning, they leave their shoes on their doorstep on Christmas Eve, along with some hay and water to feed the camel.

The next morning, these children eagerly search for their gifts in the shoes. While the concept might draw comparisons with the Christmas stockings hung from Western hearths in practically every Christmas movie, the tradition is actually closer to “Sinterklaas” in The Netherlands, where children put out their shoe with carrots and water for Sinterklaas’ horse and thank him for his long journey during which he and his black “helpers” (a portrayal that is now widely condemned as racist) deliver gifts (or coal, if the kids have been naughty).

Another Christmas tradition that is still celebrated among both the Lebanese and Syrian diaspora is one in which the youngest child in the family recites the Gospel story of the Nativity aloud on Christmas Eve, after which a family member is expected to light a bonfire in the courtyard. The family then gathers around the fire with candles in their hands.

The manner in which the flames of the bonfire spread through the wood determines whether the coming year will bring blessings. Psalms are recited until the fire is left smoldering, after which the family members leap over the remnants and make their wishes. 

BEIRUT — In many secular, Lebanese Christian and other faith households alike, Christmas occupies a special place: Christmas lights wrap around trees, lighting up streets lined with nativity scenes. A Christmas tree lights up a room, loved ones exchange gifts, and feasts shared among people often lead to a food-induced coma. The country’s Christmas traditions are as varied as they are...