Arab Christians celebrate diverse Christmas traditions across the West despite erasure

6 min read
24 December, 2021

Arab Christians in the West are celebrating Christmas, one of their holiest, most joyful holidays and a time to share in the warmth of family.

While many imagine all Arabs are Muslim, 63 percent of Arab Americans, who now number almost 3.7 million, were Christian as of a 2002 survey. Arab Christians are diverse, though often have origins in countries like Egypt and Lebanon where there are large Christian populations.

Community members in the West often find themselves forced to explain their faith and even correct work rotas that assume they don't need time off for Christmas.

"When I say I'm Middle Eastern, unless I specify I'm Christian, people automatically assume I'm Muslim," said Ayşe Lokmanoglu, 35, a half-Lebanese and half-Turkish academic living in Chicago, Illinois.

Community members in the West often find themselves forced to explain their faith and even correct work rotas that assume they don't need time off for Christmas

"When I was younger, it used to annoy me more. I used to make a point of actually clarifying every time, like being like, 'But I'm half Arab Christian.' It's like a footnote that always follows you. You always have to clarify it."

Lokmanoglu is a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University's Center for Communication and Public Policy. She was born to a Lebanese Christian mother and a Turkish Muslim father in Mersin, a port city in southern Turkey with a sizeable Christian population.

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Though Lokmanoglu isn't practising, her family belongs to the Maronite Church, a branch of Catholicism headquartered in Lebanon, but also observes the Greek Orthodox traditions of her maternal grandmother. Lokmanoglu, who moved to the United States aged 18 for university, stopped clarifying her religious background so often as she grew older.

She said: "I think I became less sensitive. And maybe I got used to it. [It] could be either way. Unless someone specifically asks, I don't mention [it]. I just don't wanna go into it."

"They actually really thought being Arab Christian was being a convert"

Lokmanoglu lived in Atlanta, Georgia until earlier this year, where she studied for a PhD in communication at Georgia State University. She said the southern US, which has historically received fewer Middle Eastern immigrants than the North, is less aware of Arab Christians.

"They actually really thought being Arab Christian was being a convert," she said of the South. "And I was like, 'No, actually, we were [always] kind of there.' My hometown was actually Tarsus, so I'm like, 'I [am from] a town that's in the Bible. Do you want to go?'"

Rashad Kamal, 53, leads the Christian Arabic Evangelical Church in Hove, a seaside town in southeast England. The pastor, who came to the UK from Egypt in 1992, has found many British people assume his Protestant church is Muslim.

He said: "We write it [as] 'Christian Arabic [Evangelical] Church', you know – Christian – but still they don't understand sometimes. They say, 'Is this [a] mosque?'"

Pastor Gadalla Tiab, 58, founded the evangelical Arabic Community Church in Brighton, a town that forms a combined city with Hove. He said people know his church is Christian, though often don't understand his personal religious history so well.

"Some English people… have reckoned I am [of a] Muslim background and, yeah, just converted, but I didn't," said Tiab, who was born a Christian and moved to the UK from Egypt in 2003.

While Kamal and Tiab see these assumptions as coming from a simple lack of knowledge, Lokmanoglu explained that over generalisations are damaging.

She said: "It does erase the beauty of these regions, I think because we have lived [there] for generations and generations and we have interreligious marriages. It erases the nuances that actually make the place what it is."

This mixing of denominations in Lokmanoglu's own family means her relatives gather in Mersin on December 24, Christmas Eve for Catholics, and – for those who haven't returned to work – January 6, the date of the Epiphany. For Greek Orthodox believers, the Epiphany held the day before Orthodox Christmas Day, marks Jesus' baptism.

While coronavirus prevented Lokmanoglu from travelling back to Turkey in 2020 and 2021, her family associates January 6 with bread-based foods and December 24 with meat. For the 40 days before Christmas Eve, her mum and other members of Mersin's Christian community observe a religious fast from animal products.

A Christmas tree lit up with LED lights
Lighting up the festive Christmas mood [James D. Morgan/Getty]

Daniel Nour, 31, is an Egyptian-Australian Christian living in Sydney who also tries to observe both December and January festivities.

The writer and journalist said: "The significance of the mixing of Christian denominations is about the pursuit of greater unity built on foundations of social justice and community service. Christian organisations and charities perform a huge social justice service in developing countries across the MENA region. Christmas is a time when diaspora communities give back through church-based donation dives."

Nour was baptised Coptic Orthodox but raised in his father's Protestant Church of the Brethren faith. Not identifying exclusively with any one sect, he has also explored both Roman and Egyptian forms of Catholicism.

He said: "I found that the sense of community that I got in the small Egyptian Catholic community in Sydney was so nourishing for me that they came to be a kind of second family."

Nour's mother and father met in Sydney, where he was eventually born. His dad moved to Australia from Egypt in the late 1960s, and his mum in the early 1970s.

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Like other Arabs and people of colour in Australia, Nour has experienced racism. During his school years, he had his achievements dismissed by a friend's parent given his background.

The parent said: "The only reason Daniel is getting all of these awards… is because the teaching staff feel sorry for him on account of his ethnicity."

Since many Islamophobes perceive all Arabs to be Muslim, Nour has also experienced anti-Muslim bigotry and recounted being called a "f***ing terrorist" at school.

He said: "The Arab, in Western consciousness – even up until now – certainly here in Sydney, is not a real thing. It's an imagined construct. It's a compilation of certain ideas and tropes of otherness.

"The kind of Arabs that I saw growing up on TV didn’t represent me. I didn't feel seen. In Australian soap operas and miniseries, there sometimes was an Arab character, but I couldn't really say, 'Oh, that's me.'"

But Nour also identified a key issue within the Arab Christian community.

"Christmas, to me, is a time of light and togetherness and family"

He said: "The biggest challenge… is to preserve their religious identity and their cultural traditions and to be truly inclusive, compassionate and accepting to all members of society. If they fail to do that, then they will see, it seems to me, that their survival, including their attendance, especially the attendance of young people, will continue to dwindle."

Nour, who said falling attendance is a problem for Christians of all ethnicities, urged a more welcoming stance towards the LGBTQIA+ community.

If participation does decrease, many will miss out on the social benefits of occasions like Christmas.

"Christmas, to me, is a time of light and togetherness and family. And I do love the respite and the calm it gives me in the course of a busy year, even though it's infused with capitalism," Nour said.

"There is still something fundamentally beautiful about being together. And it's a time too, because of the national holiday, where I can be with my other Arab friends – be they Muslim or Christian."

Nick McAlpin is a staff journalist at The New Arab

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin