I attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve with Fadi, Ghina and family at the Greek Orthodox church. It was both very different and very familiar. This was my first Orthodox service, but I knew a little about the tradition, so I expected the ornately garbed priests, iconostasis (wall of icons and religious paintings separating the nave from the sanctuary) and chanting. Very different from the Anglican Christmas Eve services I grew up with and the Unitarian Universalist ones I now attend though! I found it interesting that a senior patriarch from Jerusalem was in Aleppo at the invitation of President Assad, and he gave the address to the congregation. Of course, it was in Arabic, so I didn’t catch much of it. From Fadi’s summary afterwards, the main content was a reminder that Jesus was born in poverty in Bethlehem, and to remember all those still living in poverty and oppression in Bethlehem and other parts of Palestine. Quite a different message than most North American Christians heard I’m sure.
The church was packed, with people standing in the aisles, and some listening to the service from speakers set up outside. It was a larger church than Saint Michaels, and probably seated close to a thousand people. Quite the crowd!
After everyone received communion, we all crowded outside to wait for the arrival of Pere Noel. Yes, in Syria, Santa Claus comes to church, complete with red suit, white beard, green-garbed elves, and marching band! We followed the Santa Claus, the marching band and the priests as they circled the block around the church, then entered the church gardens. As we arrived at the gardens, fireworks were set off from adjoining buildings.
In the gardens, a stage was set up and a long line of children waited to see Santa Claus and receive a Christmas blessing from the priests.
The marching band was made up of local boy and girl scouts, all dressed in Santa suits. The elves were also scouts, and even more scouts helped with crowd control. They performed Jingle Bells and a few other traditional Christmas songs.
We decided not to wait in the long line, but crowded into Fadi’s car with a friend and her son, then all went back to her house to drink some wine and talk. Perhaps this was to give Pere Noel a bit of extra time to get to the house and deliver the presents? According to Fawad and Hayim, Santa Claus doesn’t come when you’re asleep, in Syria he comes when you’re out of the house. I wonder how he keeps track of all these different traditions?