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St. Barbara’s Day history, customs, and traditions: The Middle Eastern Halloween?

November 16, 2012


St Barbara's Day pastry Atayef

Imagine children skipping down the streets, dressed in colorful costumes, their voices singing a familiar tune as they make their way door to door, hoping to collect delicious treats. It’s easy to guess this is Halloween night, until I mention a couple crucial details: It’s December 4th in Lebanon. In this Middle Eastern nation, citizens celebrate what is known as St. Barbara’s Day or Eid el Burbara. The customs are similar to the western tradition of Halloween, where costumes are donned and candy is given out. The difference? The origin.

St. Barbara’s Day history

Children are taught the story of St. Barbara in school, and depending on the area and storyteller, slight differences exist in each version. However, regardless of the version, they all have something, or rather someone, in common: St. Barbara. She is said to have lived in 300 A.D. but was not mentioned in texts until much later. St. Barbara was the daughter of a rich pagan family, her father a man of great importance in her village. However, after hearing the teachings of Christ, she converted to Christianity, a decision that caused a great uproar in her village. When the Roman king heard of this, she was imprisoned and tortured to force her to revoke Christianity. Sainthood was bestowed on her when her injuries miraculously healed overnight after each whipping she received. She had managed to escape before she was beheaded and fled the city.

St. Barbara’s Day history, customs, traditions

Saint Barbara by Robert Campin (1438)

To keep herself from getting caught, she used several disguises to elude soldiers and relied on the kindness of strangers for housing and food. Her travels to escape condemnation drew to a halt when a mountain, believed to be the Qalamoun Mountains north of Damascus in Syria, blocked her path to freedom (this version is more synonymous with St. Mar Takla’s story, but it depends on who is telling it). With the Roman soldiers quickly gaining up on her, she found herself trapped in a valley with no where else to flee; until a miracle happened. A bolt of lighting struck the mountain with such force that it had split it apart, creating an opening wide enough for her to walk through and reach the safety and freedom she prayed to God for.

St. Barbara’s Day: Customs and traditions

Since St. Barbara’s Day precedes the beginning of Islam, both Lebanese Muslims and Christians join in celebration, making it a secular holiday. The traditions are mostly the same for all the nations that celebrate this day: children dress up in costumes and masks, commemorating St. Barbara’s use of disguises, and go door to door asking for treats. Originally, residents used to give out money instead of treats, but with the increasing influence of the western lifestyle, money has been substituted for candy.

Other ways in which the western culture has influenced the St. Barbara tradition is the incorporation of pumpkins, Halloween parties, and costume themes. Since St. Barbara’s origin is mostly influenced by Christianity, ghosts, ghouls, death and superstitions were not themes originally incorporated with this holiday. As exposure to the American culture grew, so did the Lebanese’s desires to become more like them.

St. Barbara’s Day pastry Atayef

Seasonal St. Barbara’s Day pastry in Lebanon: Atayef – pancakes with clotted cream (Greg, Flickr)

So, it isn’t unusual to celebrate two Halloweens a year there —  and no one is complaining about that.

Despite American Halloween’s growing popularity, children will continue to sing St. Barbara’s anthem – Heshleh Burbara, to eat the seasonal desserts – Ameh and ‘Atayef bil ‘Ashtah, and to maintain these unique Middle Eastern traditions.

Lyrics to Heshleh Burbara

Heshleh Burbara (Barbara is fleeing),
Maa banet el harra (with the other women),
Aariftah min aaynayha (I knew her from her eyes),
W min lafet edayha (and the movement of her hands),
W min haki el 2iswara (and from her braclet),
Heshleh Burbara

Did you know about St. Barbara’s Day and Middle Eastern Halloween?
Are there any other traditions you would like to share with us?

St. Barbara's Day author Leena Badran

Leena Badran, St. Barbara’s Day author

Big thanks to Leena Badran for writing such an interesting, beautiful post!

2 Responses to “St. Barbara’s Day history, customs, and traditions: The Middle Eastern Halloween?”

  1. Ele Says:

    I know a different story of St. Barbara but there may be several of them. For example, there are many saints called Catherine. The version of Barbara I know includes a tower. Rings a bell?


  2. Nico @ ATravellerJourney Says:

    Thanks for sharing. It’s an interesting tradition tthat I had never heard of before.


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