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Why Christmas is such a big holiday in Iraq

December 23, 2021

More Iraqi Muslims are celebrating Christmas than ever. Yet Iraq's Christians are an endangered minority and some Muslim clerics are vehemently against it. So why are there so many Christmas trees in Baghdad?

People wearing Santa Claus outfits walk the street ahead of Christmas in al-Hamdaniya, Iraq .
Christmas revelers on parade in northern IraqImage: KHALID AL-MOUSILY/REUTERS

Iraqi woman Kholoud Khardoum suspects she was the one who introduced Christmas to her village in southern Iraq. It all started six years ago with a small plastic Christmas tree and some gifts for her nieces and nephews during a visit home, the Iraqi journalist, who resides in Baghdad, recounted.

"At first, it was a bit weird. People kept asking what the tree was. It was something they had only seen on TV," she told DW; her hometown is just outside the city of Karbala, a comparatively conservative place with a Shiite Muslim majority that is also a major destination for Muslim pilgrims. "But with the lights and the decorations and gifts, the children really loved it. Then the neighbors came over and they liked what we were doing too."

That was in 2015. Now, she said, those neighbors hold their own Christmas parties and the tree in her family home is usually decorated before she even gets there.

 A Christian child decorates her home ahead of Christmas in al-Hamdaniya, Iraq December 18, 2021.
A Christian family prepares for Christmas in IraqImage: KHALID AL-MOUSILY/REUTERS

Countrywide popularity

Khardoum has also noticed that more and more Iraqis, like her family and her neighbors, are celebrating Christmas. "A few years ago you would only see Christmas decorations being sold in shops in places like Karrada or Jadiriyah [neighborhoods in Baghdad that are home to the city's Christian minority]," Khardoum explained. "But now they're all over the city."

Christmas is even becoming more popular in southern Iraq, stronghold of the country's Shiite Muslim majority, she noted. For example, her nephew goes to a private school in Karbala and there the students all pose under a large Christmas tree set up by the teachers, something that wouldn't necessarily have happened a few years ago.

In Baghdad, the city council has placed Christmas trees at intersections and many big hotels and restaurants are decorated accordingly. After visiting markets in the city this month, Iraqi website, Shafaq News, wrote that Christmas is bigger than ever in Iraq. This year, sales of trees and Santa figures are "unprecedented" and the turnout "remarkable," the outlet reported, after speaking with local stallholders.

Annual holiday

All this is despite the fact that Iraq only officially made December 25 a national public holiday last year.

Christmas has been classified as a holiday in Iraq since 2018, but that designation was up for annual renewal. Now it's permanent. This is relatively unusual in the Middle East. While they may celebrate Christmas in some way, only four other nations out of 20 in Iraq's vicinity — Sudan, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon — recognize Christmas officially. All of those countries boast a higher percentage of Christians than Iraq.

Yet, despite the fact that Christmas is growing in popularity, Iraq's Christians remain an endangered minority.

The last Iraqi government census was taken in 1987 and it counted around 1.4 million Christians. But over the last three decades, numbers have plummeted as Christians emigrated due to prejudice and persecution, as well as various political and security crises. Today, there are thought to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Christians left in Iraq, although some have suggested the real figure is even lower.

A view of the rubble of broken tombstones, damaged by Islamic State (IS) group fighters during their occupation of northern Iraq, at the Chaldean Monastery of St George (Mar Korkis) in Mosul.
The extremist Islamic State group destroyed St George's monastery in northern IraqImage: AFP via Getty Images

Christmas is political

So why all the enthusiasm for Christmas, and why now?

It can be partly explained by consumerism, globalization, social media, as well as how entertainment — things like movies and games — is marketed to all cultures.

It's the same reason Valentine's Day is now an international phenomenon, sociologist Amro Ali, a lecturer in political sociology at the American University in Cairo, told German newspaper the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. It is also a way for young Arabs to connect with what they perceive as a progressive, potentially even romantic, European tradition, Ali suggested.

An Iraqi demonstrator wearing a Santa Claus costume and a gas mask sits on a blanket in the capital Baghdad's Tahrir Square, amid ongoing anti-government protests, on December 6, 2019.
An anti-government protestor in Baghdad in December 2019Image: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

In Iraq, the trend is also political. After the defeat of the extremist group known as the "Islamic State" there in 2017, many Iraqis told local media they were celebrating Christmas to show tolerance and solidarity with those minorities the extremist group had so brutally persecuted.

"Yes, it could be all of those reasons," Bashar Matti Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, speculated. "But as an Iraqi, I think it might also be about the message behind Christmas, which is one of joy and good news. The Iraqi people have experienced a lot of tough times over the past decades. This is a way not just to celebrate, but to fight hopelessness," Warda suggested.

The archbishop pointed to the way his countrypeople greeted the visit of Pope Francis earlier this year. "We saw so many people participating, not just Christians," he told DW. "It's not just about tolerance, it's all about needing to find joy."

Secular celebrations

Most of the Iraqi Christmas celebrations appear not to be particularly connected to the festival's contemporary religious origins. Its most popular symbol here and elsewhere in the Middle East tends to be a bountifully-decorated Christmas tree, a throwback to winter solstice celebrations.

People walk past a Christmas tree at the Emirates Palace luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 17 December 2010.
In the Middle East, the most popular symbol of the season is a Christmas treeImage: Ali Haider/EPA/picture alliance

In fact, a lot of Iraqis know it as a "New Year's tree" and don't see much, if any, connection between ringing in the year to come and Christianity. A generous Santa Claus figure, or "Baba Noel," as he is often called in Iraq, is also popular, but he too is associated with the New Year because he brings gifts like new clothes.

Actual religious symbols are not seen as often. Despite the fact that Jesus Christ gets dozens of mentions in Islam's holy book, the Koran — and some Muslims do honor the religious icon because of this — emblems like crosses or nativity scenes are not a common part of Middle Eastern celebrations.

Another holiday tradition

Every year without fail, some Muslim clerics criticize parishioners for celebrating Christmas.

Christmas criticisms run the gamut: from mild-mannered tolerance, where decorations and gift-giving is fine as long as you don't enter into religious rituals, to moderate censure, such as telling tea-totaling Muslims to avoid Christmas parties where alcohol is served or skin is bared; to outright bans on everything Christmassy, because this equals less enthusiasm for official Islamic holidays.

Very conservative preachers have even issued religious edicts, or fatwas, against Christmas.

In a 2018 sermon, a prominent Sunni Muslim cleric in Iraq, Abdul-Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, told followers that celebrating Christmas meant they were neglecting Islam. His statements caused outrage, with many ordinary Iraqis — as well as Christian and Muslim authorities — refuting the idea and stressing how long Christianity had been part of Iraq's social fabric.

Pope Francis speaks at a square near the ruins of the Syriac Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception (Al-Tahira-l-Kubra), in the old city of Iraq's northern Mosul on March 7, 2021.
Thousands of Iraqis of all denominations turned out to see the Catholic Pope in Iraq this yearImage: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

More tolerance

Baghdad-based journalist Khardoum says that religious conservatives always complain about these kinds of things and that every family in Iraq celebrates differently. This ranges from gathering around the "New Year's tree" to her own family's new tradition, where her nieces and nephews enjoy the toys and new clothes but her pious mother actually commemorates the birth of Isa, as Jesus is known in the Koran.

"Look, I am an observant Muslim," she told DW. "In this case, I really don't think it matters if you are Muslim or Christian. What matters is that we all believe in God. For me, that's the important thing."

Archbishop Warda thinks Iraqis' increasing enthusiasm for Christmas could also be positive in another way, in that it potentially brings the Christian minority more recognition from the Muslim majority.

"I hope it shows Iraqi society that their minorities have something special to offer: the joy, the colors, the lights, the songs," he enthused. "And that, at the end of the day, everybody will say, 'you are an important part of Iraqi society, please stay.'"

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.