“We waited for three years. This year Christmas will be very different because we have returned to our town Baghdeda, Qaraqosh. Being able to go to church and seeing that there are people who are celebrating Christmas is something great.”
—Merna, a Christian woman from Iraq
Merna’s town in the Nineveh Plain is coming to life again after their liberation from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. An estimated 20,000 people have already returned to the town of Baghdeda, Qaraqosh. Baghdeda had the biggest population of Christians before the crisis with IS in 2014. These Iraqi Christians now prepare for their first Christmas since they returned from displacement.
Merna stands in front of a shop where they sell Christmas decorations and Christmas trees. “One of the first things Christians do when Advent starts is to start cleaning their houses,” she says. Of course, houses are cleaned regularly, but for Christmas, the houses are cleaned more intensely.
“Many families even take furniture out,” another Christian woman shares. “Only after that do we put the Christmas tree in the house and hang decorations on the walls. In this time, the churches are busy preparing the celebrations for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”
“We prepare the Christmas tree together, my brother and sisters and I,” Merna says.
Christmas will be extra special this year in the Nineveh Plain. Standing in front of the church in his village, Father Thabet, the local priest in Karamles, says, “I want to do something special this year. I would like to put a big Christmas tree at the entrance of the village.” He points to the location. “I haven’t found a tree the size I want yet. I also want the street from the entrance to the church decorated with Christmas lights.”
The central church in Karamles is now full of pillars and construction materials—signs of restoration. “Maybe the church will be ready for Christmas, otherwise we have the celebrations in the old church,” Father Thabet says.
“All Christians have their houses decorated,” says Shlema*, director of our local partner organization in Iraq. “Even during their displacement, they would put decorations in their caravans.” It seems that Christmas and food go very well together all around the world.
In Iraq, you won’t find turkey on the menu during their celebrations. “We have special food,” Shlema says. “Most traditional is pacha. We cook the head, legs, tongue and other leftovers of a cow or sheep and we put that together with rice in a stomach that we’ve cleaned. These balls we will eat at Christmas. I think about 80% of the Christians will eat that.”
Another type of food popular with Iraqi Christians is kobu qasee, a kind of soup full of meat. The meal is usually eaten on the 25th of December after church with the whole family. On that day all people dress in their new clothes they bought for this special day. For Christians, December 25 and 26 are official holidays in Iraq.
In Iraq, Christmas is also about the singing and the music—worshiping the birth of our Savior. You’ll even hear the words of “Silent Night” in their Christmas services and homes. A powerful reminder of both the majesty of our Lord’s birth—and the current peace in the region.
A gift from above.