The holidays are in the air in Beirut. In the last couple of weeks, holiday decorations have flourished in every street corner and store front.
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking in the supermarket when I came face to face with a very strange scene: an aisle full of Santas and plastic snowmen facing a section of Halloween costumes. I checked my calendar just to confirm we were indeed at the end of November, and not at the end of October, and left laughing a little and telling myself that the Lebanese had a very strange way of confusing holidays.
What would be my surprise the next day when I came face to face with this sight (please excuse the photo, as I took it while my husband and I were driving by)!
On the left you can see Rudolph and his friend, warmly clothed with little red hats and all, and on the right you see a black truck with a giant and scary tarantula on top of it. I thought Christmas had taken a gloomy turn this year…
When I arrived to the office I shared my confusion with my Lebanese colleagues, to their great amusement. And I finally received the piece of information I was missing: on December 4th, the Lebanese celebrate the holiday of Saint Barbara, or “Eid il-Burbara” as it is commonly known.
This is a holiday celebrated by Arab Christians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine and the story goes as follows: Barbara- a lady from Baalbek in Lebanon- was put in a tower a la Rapunzel by her pagan (and a bit intense) father to preserve her from the outside world.
In her hours of solace, she became a Christian (not sure how), rejected an offer of marriage and added three windows to her private bath-house as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. The father not being a very tolerant guy, tried to kill her when he discovered her devotions. Miraculously, an opening in the tower wall appeared. Barbara escaped and disguised herself in numerous characters to elude the Romans who were persecuting her (hence the Halloween costumes). After a long series of miracles, the story came to a sad end for Barbara and she was condemned to death. Her own father beheaded her, only to be struck by lightning on the way home and his body was consumed by flames as punishment.
One cool tradition: while fleeing persecution, Barbara supposedly also ran through a freshly planted wheat field, which grew instantly to cover her path. This miracle is recreated symbolically today in Lebanon by planting wheat seeds in cotton wool on Saint Barbara’s feast day. The seeds germinate and grow up to around 6 inches in time for Christmas, when the shoots are used to decorate the nativity scene usually placed below the Christmas tree (thank you Wikipedia!).
And a final note: Saint Barbara is the patron saint of artillerymen, military engineers, miners and others who work with explosives (because of her old legend's association with lightning). Let us hope that she doesn’t intervene too much in our region these days…