Most nations have some appreciation of traditions. The United States, for example, has traditions for celebrating popular holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. It also has some traditions for other occasions, such as wearing white to weddings and black to funerals, or throwing bachelor/bachelorette parties and baby showers.
The word “tradition,” which came into the English language from the Latin word traditio, refers to something that has been “handed down.” It therefore isn’t surprising that the Middle East, a region with cultures and civilizations that pre-date the Bronze Age, has a great many traditions that have accumulated over the centuries, and continued to be cherished and handed down from generation to generation.
Given that my husband is Lebanese, I am most familiar with the traditions upheld in Lebanon. The other Middle Eastern countries have similar traditions, although each culture has slightly different variations. Unlike Americans and Europeans who, as a group, tend to be reserved and self-contained, the Lebanese and Arabs are very warm and expressive. Their traditions are not just a way of preserving the past, but also of relating to each other and sharing their common experiences.
The Traditional Meal
Americans have a large, multiple course meal a few times a year, on Thanksgiving and Christmas, for example. The Lebanese have such a meal at least every Sunday, if not more often, whenever they gather together with friends and family. The meal begins with the mezzes, or appetizers, which typically include a spread of fresh vegetables, nuts, tabouli (a fresh parsley based salad), hummus (chick-pea dip), baba ganoush (egg plant dip), grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, and fried kibbeh (there is no American equivalent, but it’s something like a spiced, stuffed meatball). Other special sides can be added as well. With this spread, I’m usually full before the main meal even begins!
Most of these side dishes make use of common ingredients that have been widely grown and bred in the region since the agricultural revolution. The current forms of these dishes, such as hummus and tabouli can be traced back in writing to the 1200s and even further in oral tradition.
The main course usually includes a hot, filling dish, such as chicken and rice garnished with almonds, cashews and pine nuts.
This is followed by a wide spread of fresh fruits and, finally, by Arab sweets, such as baklava – a honey laced, nut filled pastry first made by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC, and coffee – strong, fresh and black. The meal is usually accompanied by arak, a traditional, potent, anise based liquor.
Lebanon has adopted some of the Western Christmas traditions, such as hanging Christmas lights and decorations around the town, and giving gifts. Most Lebanese Christians are Maronite Catholics. In the Maronite rite, Advent begins two weeks sooner than it does in the Latin rite, so the Lebanese prepare for Christmas for six weeks. Celebrations begin Christmas Eve with a large dinner and time to be together, followed by Midnight Mass and further visiting rounds and celebrations Christmas day. If a couple is engaged around Christmas time, which my husband and I were two Christmases ago, they traditionally spend Christmas Eve with one of the families, and Christmas Day with the other. Most homes have a Christmas tree, as well as a homemade manger scene, done with stiff brown paper or burlap, to look more like the manger of Bethlehem. While Arab sweets and the traditional meal are prepared, the main Christmas sweet is the buche de Noel, a log shaped, decorated cake borrowed from French tradition.
In the Maronite rite, Lent begins on a Monday, two days earlier than the Latin rite celebrates Ash Wednesday. While traditions of fasting and prayer differ from family to family, the majority of Lebanese still preserve the tradition of fasting every day, with the exception of Sundays and/or abstaining from meat throughout the entire season. A soft, lightly sweetened type of cookie that looks like a mini-donut, called sweet kaak, is traditionally baked and shared during Lent. The religious celebrations during Holy Week are similar to those held in western Churches. On Holy Thursday, however, the Lebanese have a tradition of visiting and praying in seven Churches, in honor of the Lord’s Passion. People go to the Easter Vigil Mass, and/or Easter morning Mass, and spend the rest of the day visiting friends and relatives, spending time together and, as always, enjoying the traditional meal. The entire season. A soft, lightly sweetened type of cookie that looks like a mini-donut, called sweet kaak, is traditionally baked and shared during Lent. The religious celebrations during Holy Week are similar to those held in western Churches. On Holy Thursday, however, the Lebanese have a tradition of visiting and praying in seven Churches, in honor of the Lord’s Passion. People go to the Easter Vigil Mass, and/or Easter morning Mass, and spend the rest of the day visiting friends and relatives, spending time together and, as always, enjoying the traditional meal. The tradition of giving Easter baskets has been adopted from the West, but works slightly differently. The baskets only contain varying sizes of chocolate eggs. People don’t receive individual baskets, but bring small baskets of the chocolate eggs as a token gift when visiting friends and relatives, so usually each household ends up with one or two such baskets that are used as a centerpiece and shared with guests when they come. Another traditional sweet associated with Easter, maamoul, is prepared or purchased from a fresh bakery. Maamoul is a soft type of sugar cookie stuffed with dates and/or nuts, flavored with spice and brushed in powdered sugar.
To be continued…