|The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Photo from Palestine Image Bank.|
|Photo by Niveen Manarios.|
|Nativity Church, Bethlehem. Photo from Palestine Image Bank.|
Popular Traditions and Customs
Christian Rituals in Palestine
By Fr. Rafiq Khoury
Nations and societies express their culture and sentiments through traditions, customs, and popular practices. Religious, social, and national identities are the main aspects of culture that are deeply embedded in traditions. As part of the national heritage, traditions develop gradually and spontaneously as a result of conscious and unconscious social interactions and as a result of the social, cumulative effect of the life experiences that nations have passed through in their history. Traditions play a significant role in the lives of nations; they unite people, shape their identity, and are crucial for the integration of individuals within their communities.
Like people from all nations of the world, the Palestinian people have a wide range of popular traditions and customs that revolve around religion and represent the collective spiritual sentiments of people. Throughout the past 2,000 years, Palestinian Christians have developed their own set of traditions tinged with religion. In this article, I will talk about some of the traditions, customs, and practices that are associated with Christian communities in Palestine. They can be divided into three categories: holy sites, religious feast days, and sacred rituals.
Palestinian Christians live on the same land where Christ lived, taught, and spread His message. Hence, it is only natural that many of their traditions and social practices have been inspired and shaped by the holy sites around them. Churches were founded on sacred ground as emblems and reminders of the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary; the most important of which are the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
Pilgrimage to the holy sites in Palestine started about two thousand years ago, shortly after the emergence of Christianity. Palestinian Christians journey to these places in order to worship and to seek the blessings of God, and they light candles in churches for the salvation of their souls and the souls of their relatives. They pray to the holy saints to intercede for them before God so that God will provide them with all that they need. In addition, popular celebrations are closely associated with the holy sites. These are social celebrations characterised by an atmosphere of joy and jubilation. Palestinian Christians at home and in the diaspora maintain strong connections with holy sites. It is known that when Palestinians come from abroad to visit their relatives in Palestine, the first thing that they think of doing is to visit the holy sites, which they consider to be a source of grace and blessing.
Holy sites are also associated with holy occasions, especially Christmas and Easter. In addition to the three main churches mentioned above, there are other significant sanctuaries that are frequented by believers, including the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem, St. George’s sanctuaries in Lod and Al-Khader, Our Lady of Palestine Sanctuary in Rafat, west of the city of Jerusalem, St. Elijah in Haifa (and near Bethlehem), the Mount of the Beatitudes, and Mt. Tabor. For example, the Milk Grotto near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is usually visited by mothers who have difficulty breastfeeding their babies. The mothers ask for the intercession of the Virgin Mary who, according to tradition, breastfed Jesus in this place when she was journeying with Joseph to Egypt during their flight from Herod.
Palestinian Christians visit the holy sites, kiss the holy stones, pray, and light candles. Palestinian Christian residents of the city of Jerusalem know well the image of the Virgin Mary, Mother of Pain, on Golgotha. Throughout the past two thousand years generations have come to worship before this image leaving behind them all their pain and difficulties, and joyfully donating their gold rings, necklaces, and other items of value as an expression of their love for the Virgin or in fulfilment of a vow. It is well known that families prefer to have their children baptised or to have their weddings take place in these holy places. Finally, it must be said that the closure imposed on Jerusalem by the Israeli military authorities and the Wall around the holy city have deprived Palestinian Christians from one of the most basic sources of their spiritual and religious life (in addition to their social, economic, and cultural life).
Religious Feast Days
The holy sites derive their importance from the feast days associated with them. At Christmas, hundreds of thousands of Christians assemble in the city of Bethlehem, which is decorated with colourful lights, Christmas trees, and figures of Santa Claus. The whole city becomes a popular market and a source of great joy to families. What characterises Christmas celebrations is the entry of the patriarchs into Bethlehem. The Latin patriarch processes into the city on 24 December, the Greek Orthodox patriarch on 18 January, and the Franciscans on 5 January, which commemorates the feast of Epiphany. The entry of the patriarchs takes place in an organised manner. The patriarchs leave their abode in Jerusalem and are led by mounted police to their vehicles that take them to Bethlehem where they are received by delegations, including mayors, governors, and government officials from the cities of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala. The crowd is led by boy scouts and girl scouts to the Nativity Square where the patriarchs meet eminent figures of Bethlehem and neighbouring towns and villages. Then they go into the Church of the Nativity where religious rites begin. Christmas celebrations are a huge event in Bethlehem; the chairman of the Palestinian Authority attends the midnight mass because Christmas is not only a Christian event but has become a national holiday that is celebrated by all the Palestinian people.
At Easter, the city of Jerusalem turns into a sea of people. Palestinian Christians and Christian pilgrims from all over the world arrive in the city and walk through its streets and alleys, holding huge crosses on their shoulders. They follow the footsteps of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa passing by all the 14 stations that remind them of the agony of Christ.
One of the main processions that take place during Easter time is the Palm Sunday procession. Believers hold palm or olive branches and walk from Bethany to Saint Anne’s Church singing special hymns for this occasion. Holy Saturday, also called the Day of Light, has a very special character, especially in the Eastern Christian tradition. Believers set out from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a carnival of extreme joy holding candles that they light from fire that, according to tradition, emanates from the Holy Tomb. Young people sing religious and national songs and go through the streets of the old city of Jerusalem lighting the candles of other people. The light is also taken to other cities and towns in Palestine.
In Nazareth, the Day of the Annunciation is celebrated every year on 25 March. People in Nazareth hold religious celebrations, going out onto the streets in large crowds and singing hymns and national songs.
Christians in Haifa celebrate St. Elijah’s Day on 20 June on top of Mt. Carmel. Crowds of people go up the mountain for worship and social gathering. On the northern outskirts of Bethlehem there is a monastery called St. Elijah’s Monastery. According to tradition, St. Elijah passed by this place when he was on his way to Mt. Horeb in Sinai. On this site a monastery was erected in the fourth century AD. On St. Elijah’s Day, Christians flock to the monastery, which turns into a popular market that sells traditional items that include pottery jars and ceramics. Unfortunately, however, the separation Wall that surrounds the West Bank prevents Palestinian Christians in the West Bank from coming to the monastery on that holy day.
Like St. Elijah, St. George is also venerated by Palestinian Christians. One aspect of veneration is that Christians carve the image of St. George on a stone over the entrance to their homes as a sign of protection. On St. George’s Day Christians from all over Palestine go in large crowds to Lod, the hometown of St. George, to hold religious and social celebrations and festivals.
Sanctuaries in Palestine are many and social traditions associated with them are numerous. They include Rafat sanctuary where celebrations take place to commemorate the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Palestine, and Our Lady’s sanctuary near the Church of Gethsemane in Jerusalem, which, on 15 August is visited by believers who process to the church from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in the old city of Jerusalem. Believers spend all day in the gardens of the sanctuary.
Religious feasts are also linked to popular food. At Easter, for instance, Christians make and eat special sweets called kaak and ma’moul made of semolina stuffed with dates or walnuts. According to tradition, the kaak represents the crown of thorns on the head of Christ, and the ma’moul represents the sponge soaked with wine, which the Roman soldiers gave to Christ to drink while He was on the cross.
Another traditional dish is called burbara, after St. Barbara who lived in the fourth century and whose sanctuary is in the village of Deir Aboud. Christians all over Palestine eat burbara, which is made of a mixture of wheat, raisins, and pomegranate seeds soaked in sweetened syrup made of apricot juice called qamarddin. On the eve of St. Barbara’s Day, believers carry trays of qamarddin to the altar to be blessed by the priest. Afterwards they return home to eat with family and friends.
What we mean by rituals is the celebrations relating to the seven sacraments, including baptism, marriage, burial of the dead, etc. These rituals have their own spiritual and religious meaning that puts the individual in a very special relationship with God. But they are also social rites that connect people, deepen their relationships with each other, and strengthen their identity. For example, many social traditions revolve around baptism, which is also a social occasion that contributes to the child’s integration within the community of believers. On this occasion, the immediate family and relatives of the baptised child get together and bring gifts to the child. According to tradition the child must weep at the time of baptism because tears, according to believers, are a good omen. On one occasion, as I baptised a child who remained quiet throughout the ceremony, the grandmother suddenly pinched the baby to make it weep. Usually after the baptism the family of the baptised child invites relatives and friends to a lunch or dinner in a hall or at home.
There are many social traditions associated with weddings. Before the actual marriage ceremony takes place in church, many social practices are performed that highlight the importance of marriage in the Christian environment. The social practices include the bride being adorned with henna, the groom’s beard being shaved off by his close friends, and evenings of dancing and singing that precede the wedding. Traditionally and especially in rural areas, these practices used to go on for seven days and seven nights and included diverse social activities such as horseracing. In urban areas, however, wedding ceremonies last only for one day due to their high costs and to the change in social structure that has occurred over time.
The wedding ceremony starts with the bride leaving her father’s house. She is given an amount of money called nqout as a gesture of solidarity from her family, as wedding ceremonies cost a lot of money. On the way from the groom’s home to the church, a zeffa, or groom’s procession, winds through the streets of the village. Friends and relatives of the groom assemble and escort the groom to church, holding him on their shoulders and dancing and singing jubilant songs. The songs express joy, social integration, and religious sentiments that generations have inherited from their ancestors. In the churchyard, the crowd does the last round of dancing and singing before entering the church. Inside the church at the end of the ceremony, the best man holds the groom and throws him into the air three times. Following the wedding ceremony, the groom’s family invites the bride’s family and close friends to a banquet, and one week later they hold the frad, which is a social gathering of both families that takes place on the Sunday that follows the wedding ceremony. After the newlywed couple returns from their honeymoon, the priest welcomes them as a new family into the bigger family of the church.
Social traditions are also associated with the burial of the dead. Believers meet to express their sorrow and at the same time their belief in resurrection and eternal life. People gather in the house of the deceased to give their condolences to his/her relatives. This is a tradition that brings much consolation and social solidarity to the family of the deceased. On this occasion only coffee without sugar is provided to people who, after drinking the coffee, utter expressions that include “May God show mercy upon him,” and “May you have a long life.” After the burial, family members get together to eat the food of “mercy” that is traditionally offered by one of the relatives of the deceased. The house of condolences remains open for three days after the burial so that the family of the deceased will not remain alone. Condolences finish on the third day in church where the after-burial prayer takes place. One of the burial traditions is to cover the dead body with the shroud of Christ, a piece of fabric that is used especially for these occasions. In addition, before covering the coffin, the priest throws a handful of earth over the dead body and pours a bottle of olive oil on it. The olive oil represents life and by using it people express their belief in eternal life.
Although there are a lot of customs and traditions concerning religious occasions, we could not deal with them all in this article. People in the East express their spiritual and social feelings in concrete terms. Traditions and customs are mixed with national and religious feelings. They express the individual’s relationship with God, with other people, and with the land.
It must be said that Christians and Muslims share many traditions and customs. All traditions are deeply rooted in history, and they all express very special social situations that have specific religious characteristics. The after-burial tradition and ululation during weddings are common traditions shared by Muslims and Christians. Finally, traditions and customs are concrete representations of social, national, religious, and family belonging.
Fr. Rafiq Khoury teaches at the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Beit Jala.