Some Lebanese keen on reviving traditional St. Barbara Day celebrations

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Women shop for costumes for their children to wear on St. Barbara Day. Al-Akhbar/Haitham Moussawi

By: Nicolas Abu Rjeili

Published Thursday, December 4, 2014

Last night, throngs of people celebrated the Feast of St. Barbara, knocking on doors and singing songs dedicated to this occasion although devotees are dwindling year after year. But this year's revelers were keen on reviving the holiday by carrying out all the old traditions.

"Barbara wanders with the girls of the neighborhood" is a popular tune sung by children and young people on the night of December 3 in celebration of the Feast of St. Barbara, which can be traced back to a story taking place in Baalbek 1,700 years ago. On this occasion, people dress up in costumes and visit the homes of their neighbors, friends, and relatives to wish them well, chanting and singing songs in celebration of the holiday.

Another song goes, "harej harej Barbara amoudein w minshara, hil el-kis w etina; lawla el-sheikh ma jina” [harej harej Barbara, two poles and a saw, untie the bag and give us; if it was not for the sheikh, we would not have come over]. But what does this chant mean? "We inherited it with the other St. Barbara songs from our ancestors and we are teaching it to our kids and grandkids," says Um Beshara, who did not know the exact meaning of the song. "Harej is a word used by villagers to refer to face masks. But as far as I know, not everyone sings this song. It is almost exclusive to people from mixed Muslim-Christian neighborhoods or towns, who used to share this occasion. Our village has kept this tradition to this day."

Um Beshara describes the significance of going around the neighborhood to people’s homes. "In the past, children would compete on the night of St. Barbara's feast to collect small amounts of wheat, bulgur, lentils, eggs, candy and money. Each family would provide something depending on their means. It symbolizes the teachings of Jesus Christ (Give us this day our daily bread)."

One of the more amusing chants goes, "Arghileh over Arghileh, the homeowner is rich," implying generous; children sing it if they’re pleased with what the homeowner gave them. Otherwise, the words are changed to say "Adlieh over Adlieh, the homeowner is stingy." In the case someone asks too many questions the reply is, "Nara over Nara, the homeowner is a blabbermouth."

"Some people try to remove the masks to know who's behind them and some of them manage to conceal their identity, but others reveal their faces on their own," Um Beshara elaborated.

Marie Maalouf spoke about some of the dishes prepared by housewives to celebrate St. Barbara’s Feast, like boiled wheat with anise, cinnamon, some sugar, and almonds. "The wheat represents triumph and jubilation for the saint's victory. According to the tale, she escaped from her despotic father and ran through the wheat fields, which grew miraculously to protect her from his soldiers who wanted to catch her," she explained.

There are also many sweets involved in the celebrations, Um Tony mentions zalabiya and awwamat (sweet fried doughs), qatayef (small pancakes) filled with cream or almonds and dipped in syrup. "These sweets have an old religious significance, as they refer to the body of St. Barbara, which was scattered in a pool of blood, like qatayef batter does when you throw it in the oil."

Maalouf lamented the demise of the old St. Barbara Day customs. "Unfortunately, this holiday lost its appeal and real meaning when it turned into a transient occasion with each person celebrating it in their own way, either by squandering money to boast about expensive costumes or wearing scary masks to frighten kids and adults alike, instead of wearing nice masks of peaceful animals, which bring joy to everyone," she said.

As the night of the feast day approaches, the gift and toy shop displays are filled with all sorts of masks and costumes for the occasion. Outside one of those stores in the Zahleh market, 6-year-old Sara was choosing a "masque" (like she called it in French) from a plethora of masks, both scary and soothing.

"I want one that looks like a mouse and clothes with wings like a butterfly," she clarified. Her 10-year-old brother Jad, however, could not decide between being a ninja or Superman. Ultimately, his mother convinced him of the latter, in an attempt to protect the innocence of childhood and "maintain the meaning and symbolism of this religious occasion and out of respecting the memory of St. Barbara," she explained.

Fouad (who preferred not to disclose his last name) recounted funny situations that arose among family and friends during past St. Barbara feasts. "Four years ago, while I was at home with my wife on Barbara night, two men knocked on the door. One of them was dressed like a woman and the other as Charlie Chaplin. When they came in, the second one approached my wife and hugged her, trying to kiss her. I got furious and attacked him. I removed the mask and discovered it was my sister-in-law and her husband."

Despite such funny stories, some people resort to wearing scary costumes to carry out immoral and illegal acts that have nothing to do with the values and meaning of this occasion.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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