St. Barbara’s fest is celebrated by Arab Christians (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestant) in December every year. This day is very special in the Levant, not only for Christians, but also for many fans of ‘Burbara’. This wheat festive dish is celebrated by Christian family members of all ages and enjoyed best when shared with Muslim neighbors and friends.
Christians in the Levant, particularly in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, celebrate Saint Barbara’s Day (in Arabic Eid il-Burbara) in December every year, as an early start to the festive season and as a good omen for the rainy season. On this special occasion, families prepare a dish called Burbara (the name Barbara in Arabic), which is distributed to other family members and neighbors. Traditions vary between countries, where some plant wheat seeds (or other grain) in little pots of cotton wool that germinate and grow up to 15 cm until Christmas, and are then used to decorate the nativity scene under the Christmas tree or in churches to symbolically recreate Saint Barbara’s miracle.
In Lebanon, St. Barbara’s day has an additional flavor, since it is reminiscent of the Trick-or-Treat custom of Halloween; children dress up in disguises and roam around colorful streets filled with the fragrance of spices and Arabic music playing in the background, visiting houses while singing songs and receiving festive food. Greek Orthodox Christians in Georgia also celebrate Saint Barbara’s day with similar traditions to those in the Levant.
The dish Burbara is a boiled porridge made from shelled wheat berries and includes several ingredients that give it a special and distinctive taste, such as various grains, pomegranate seeds, dried figs or apricot, raisins, anise, fennel, and cinnamon. Different cities tend to have their particular combinations of ingredients. My favorite part about the dish is its aromatic smell that I distinctly remember filling our house as my mom boiled it for 1-2 hours on the stove while I prepared for my end of term examinations. As Burbara can be eaten hot or cold, we often invited neighbors over and enjoyed hot Burbara on cold winter evenings, but we also froze some to enjoy cold during hot summer days. Burbara is a very aromatic and filling dish, which some people enjoy as a dessert and others as a breakfast. Several community centers in Palestine open their kitchens to Christians and Muslims alike for preparing Burbara.
There are several legends behind the miracle of Saint Barbara and the dish. I will mention a few of the most widely believed ones: Barbara was born in the Greek city of Heliopolis in Syria (which is now Baalbek in Lebanon) to a wealthy devoted pagan widower who cared for her and educated her until he became aware of her Christian faith, which led him to persecute and ultimately execute her. Barbara’s faith manifested in the miracle of her wounds constantly healing whilst being persecuted, which led to her father eventually beheading her. One legend tells of Barbara’s struggle to keep to her Christian faith, which she adopted from a maid at her father’s mansion. Despite her father’s attempts to keep her from practicing the religion she had chosen, Barbara risked her life and hid in the wheat fields to stand up for her beliefs. The freshly planted wheat field instantly grew to cover her tracks, hence aiding in her rescue from persecution. Other tales describe Saint Barbara as a Christian Martyr who was persecuted by the Romans and disguised herself as many characters in an attempt to escape through the same wheat fields that the previous legend describes. The numerous characters Barbara adopted explain the current tradition of children dressing up in costumes that is practiced in Lebanon. Other people believe that Barbara was locked up in a storage room due to her beliefs, and she only had access to wheat berries to eat. Hence people commemorate her day by preparing the aforementioned wheat-based dish.
Even though many people who enjoy Burbara nowadays are unaware of the strong religious story behind it, this dish has brought together families and friends from different religions, and it will continue to be enjoyed in the years to come.
Most people who are aware of the story especially value Saint Barbara not because of her commitment and loyalty to the Christian religion, but due to the sacrifice that she was willing to make for her beliefs.
Religion and the convictions associated with it often guide and define the actions of believers, acting more or less as a moral compass. Since actions involve interaction with other people, the Arab societies in the Levant especially value religion and the positive attributes it brings into society. Christian and Muslim Arabs are very close to each other within their societies, as they share a language, many customs, and their belief in one god. Additionally, due to the close living proximity of people within small villages where each family was traditionally responsible for a craft or job, it comes as no surprise that Muslims have come to know about Burbara (probably by smelling it through their windows), and to appreciate its taste.
Hence, the story’s importance to the Christian Arab community probably motivated St. Barbara’s celebration with the dedication of this special dish, which came to be known and appreciated by Muslims as well.
The fact that a religious story has turned into a traditional recipe that brings together Arabs of all religions is a magnificent reality that we ought to learn from. We need to be reminded more often to celebrate and embrace our differences.