Culinary Christmas traditions in the Holy Land

Christmas celebrations consist of more than just trees; delicious local holiday treats are also an important part the festivities.

Christmas tree (photo credit: Wikicommons)
Christmas tree
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
Christmas is a time of celebration and reunion. Therefore, it is a common practice among Holy Land Christian communities to visit members of their families and neighbors during this festive period. The families visit in two groups – one family will visit while another is hosting guests at home.
It can be useful to know the specific traditions when visiting local Christian families. When entering a home, it is appropriate for the guest to admire all the beautiful Christmas decorations, lights, Christmas tableware, and, of course, the very decorative Christmas trees with mghrara – a cave representing the Nativity scene, made from colorful paper and containing olive wood figures of the Holy Family, Magi and shepherds.
Mamoul and Ghraibeh Cookies
In many houses, the hostess will display a big bowl of freshly baked Christmas cookies, such as mamoul or ghraibeh.
Mamoul is a type of Middle Eastern butter cookie filled usually with date paste (ajweh), and typically prepared on religious holidays. The dough is made from semolina (smeed), which is a coarse, purified wheat middling of durum wheat.
Other ingredients used to make mamoul include rose water and mistka spice, which give it a very distinct taste. Some bakers will fill their mamoul cookies with walnuts or pistachios and then sprinkle them with powdered sugar.
Ghraybeh is another Middle Eastern shortbread sweet. Its main ingredients include semolina, pictachio nuts, butter, sugar and orange blossom. They are usually formed in as shape of a letter ‘S’ and decorated with one full pistachio nut.
Chocolate and Liqueur
Another tradition is to offer a Christmas chocolate, often in a shape of Santa Claus and a shot of a high quality liqueur, sweet wine or arak - an anise aperitif.
Traditionally, it is not polite to refuse anything offered, however it is acceptable to say no to an alcoholic drink. The chocolate or a cookie can be taken home for consumption later.
Goodbye Coffee
Traditional Arabic coffee is very strong, and therefore served in very small cups. It is usually freshly grounded with a couple of cardamon seeds, which makes it very aromatic. Offering coffee to a guest is a polite way of saying goodbye,“ma’ salameh.” If a person offers a coffee at the beginning of a meeting, he needs to add that it is a welcome coffee,“kahwehahla w sahla,” otherwise a guest might understand that he is not welcome at the moment.
Qidreh or Malfouf
On Christmas Day family members gather for a big meal together. Usually meals are very rich. It is common to prepare Qidreh, lamb meat cooked with rice in special wood fired oven. Often it can be ordered from places that specialize in making it. Qidreh is always served with leban, which is a thick yogurt.
Some families prepare malfouf – rice mixed with minced meat rolled in cabbage leaves. The rolls are small in size, that is why this dish needs a lot of time and work, but it tastes delicious. Most people like it topped with lemon juice to make it sourer.
Many Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem open their houses to international visitors. It is recommended to experience Christmas in Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, by staying with a Bethlehem family and learn about their traditions.
BeataAndonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.