Eid il-Burbara Halloween or St Barbara Day is a yearly celebration held on the Eve of December the 4th in Lebanon and the Levant area of the Middle East.
It is mostly popular in Lebanon, where the practice is much more elaborated, but is also quite common in some parts of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.
Eid el Burbara is a very peculiar tradition and is largely inspired by other Halloween celebrations of the world, with similar activities such as wearing scary costumes, children going trick-or-treating from door to door, people attending costume parties, carving jack-o'-lanterns, watching horror films, etc... But unlike the western version observed on October 31, the Eastern Eid el Burbara Halloween still has strong ties with its Christian roots. Arab Christians commemorate therein their earlier persecutions, symbolized by St Barbara. She supposedly fled the pagan rule that had learned of her conversion to Christianity. To escape from the persecuting soldiers that were sent to bring her back, she wore different masks and disguises. Her private royal retinue helped her escape by also masquerading, making it impossible for the king's soldiers to identify her. This is why people today wear costumes.(see also Halloween Costume Ideas and Latest Trends in Halloween Costumes)
The real history of this Eid is rather very obscure, and the story of Barbara herself has so many different versions. With time, people have added to it, and incorporated the traditions and rites of different backgrounds to create something as eclectic as the Lebanese society.
Barb's Day Customs :
A common practice on Eid el Burbara finds its source in the rest of the told legend. While fleeing persecution, Barbara supposedly also ran through a freshly planted wheat field, which grew instantly to magically cover her path. This miracle is recreated symbolically today by planting wheat seeds (or chick peas, barley grains, beans, lentils, etc.) in cotton wool on St 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.
There is also another custom more popular in the west, that of bringing branches into the house on December 4 to bloom on Christmas. It seems a branch of cherry tree had gotten caught in Barbara’s dress. When she was locked in the dungeon. Barbara watered it with the water from her drinking cup, and on the day of her execution (in the winter of 306), the branch bloomed.From this comes the custom of "Barbarazweig".
In some areas St. Barbara's is also the day to bake Kletzenbrot (a fruit cake).
Secular vs. Christian festival :
In some sources, Barbara was said to be fleeing from an arranged marriage, her father had imposed upon her. The Christian version however has chosen to highlight the fact that she had converted to Christianity and did not wish to marry a Pagan man.
Much like Halloween, the Eid el Burbara celebration was adopted by other groups and has become a secular one. Apart from the Arab Christians, is it especially popular amongst the Shite Muslim community, which also happens to celebrate Easter! Most Lebanese are known to also place a Christmas tree in their homes.
Eid el Burbara Trick-or-treating :
On the night of every 3rd of December, children masquerading in Halloween costumes trick-or-treat from door to door as they chant a typical anthem/song called Heshle Burbara(Arabic for Barbara is fleeing). The lyrics incite the ‘lady of the house’ to spare a few coins, in return for good fortune. Traditionally money is given, but gradually sweets and toffees are becoming a more common alternative, thus joining the western customs in Halloween. Kids usually announce their arrival in the early evening by shaking their tambourines or hitting a large traditional drum known as the Tabel, as they approach their neighbors’ doors in song.
Eid el Burbara Foods :
A special half moon shaped sweet called Atayef is also prepared on this occasion in Lebanon. The two-bite pancake dessert is a dough stuffed with nuts or clotted cream/Ashta and served with a sugary syrup made of orange blossom water and Rose Water. Another dish prepared on Burbara is Kameh or Sneyniyeh. It is an Arabic pudding made from wheat boiled in an anise-infused water, then sweetened and topped with nuts, raisins, and pomegranate seeds.
St. Barbara Story :
The popular folkloric tale of St. Barbara in the region somewhat diverges from the version known in Europe, borrowing certain features from the story of yet another local saint in Syria, St Mar Takla Maaloula. To note that St Barbara has no references in early Christian writings, and because of great doubts about the historicity of her legend, she was removed from the liturgical calendar of the Roman rite in 1969. It is argued that she lived around 300 AD., but inventories of martyrs do not mention her until the 7th century onwards with her veneration really becoming popular by medieval times. Her relics are supposedly preserved in a church built around 684 AD in Old Cairo. Barbara lived in the city of Heliopolis (Izmet Turkey in other sources)in the beginning of the third century. She was the very beautiful daughter of a rich pagan nobleman Dioscorus, who hid her away from suitors in a magnificent tower he had built just for her. He provided her with every material luxury, the best food, clothing, servants and teachers, but forbade her to have friends or speak to strangers without his permission. Shortly before embarking on a journey, he commissioned a sumptuous bathhouse to be built for her, approving the design before he departed. While her father was away, Barbara heard of the teachings of Christ, and adopted this new religion. She instructed the builders to redesign the bathhouse her father had planned with two windows, adding another window so that it would symbolize the Holy Trinity. Upon his return, the father was infuriated to learn of his daughter’s conversion to Christianity. Dioscorus brought her before Marcian, the Roman perfect of the province, who decreed that she be tortured until she denied Christ otherwise put to death by beheading. Barbara was repeatedly struck with whips and clubs before being temporarily placed in a prison until her next torture session. Meanwhile, she would pray for God’s help and would see her wounds magically healed. The soldiers then burned her wounds with hot irons and beat her head with spiked clubs, but she would still not deny her convictions, until Marcian finally ordered she be beheaded. Dioscorus offered to execute Saint Barbara himself with his own sword, out of the city in the mountainside. But before he could do so a great bolt of lightning came from heaven striking and killing him. When Marcian heard of these events, he became so paralyzed by fear that he died of fright.
St Mar Takla Maaloula Story :
Here also the official story is somewhat different from the popular one. Similarly to St. Barbara, Mar Takla (or St Thecla) also supposedly came from a rich Pagan family in Iconia of the first century A.D. After her father passed away, her mother made sure she got engaged to a handsome pagan man. But after Takla had heard the Christan preachings of Saint Paul who arrived from Antakia, she embraced celibacy and converted to Christianity. Her angered mother and fiance informed the ruler who attempted to force Takla to renounce her new beliefs and carry on with the original wedding plans. When she stubbornly refused, she was sentenced to be burnt at the stake. However, a miracle occurred during the trial and out of nowhere torrid rains stopped the fire.
Takla was released, up until a new much radical ruler came to power. When she again refused to renounce her conversion, she was placed in the Gladiators Arena of the city's Amphitheater, along with vicious Lions. Hoping to entertain the crowd, the King was bewildered when the animals merely licked her toes and lied down at her feet. She was then tied to two wild bulls, but the beasts would not move around despite the arrows the gladiators struck in them.(We are not sure why they wouldn't simply finish her off themselves instead of all this lol). She was then placed in a cell with snakes, but she would miraculously not get bitten. The King finally set her free. Takla visited Palestine, then settled in Slokia for the rest of her days.
The more popular story regarding Takla is however completely different. It is believed she fled her powerful pagan father after he had learned of her conversion to Christianity. His soldiers followed her as she reached Maaloula, a village perched in the majestic Qalamoun Mountains north from Damascus Syria. She would miraculously be saved each time they were about to execute her or catch up with her. During her escape, she was confronted by a mountain range in her way. Weary of her plight, she prayed God to save her and so he split the mountain in half so that she may escape through it. It is said that St. Takla preached Christianity to the inhabitants there, and converted most of them. She spent the rest of her life in a grotto, praying, preaching and blessing.
The pathway in the Maaloula Canyon, as well as the shrine dedicated to her, constitute today one of the most visited sites by Christian pilgrims in Syria.
PS: The nuns that live at the convent of Mar Takla Maaloula are very mean! You have been warned;)
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