Issue 38

Christmas In Iraq

By Taylor Smith

Some people like to escape Christmas for the holidays, and most would think Iraq is the perfect place to do that. But a trip to Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, in December would prove otherwise. Here, you will find Christmas trees and twinkling crosses- as long as there is electricity.

Kurdistan preaches pluralism and practices a much more modern art of religious freedom than the surrounding country. Since the 2003 Iraq War, the region has proved to be a safe haven to Christians fleeing religious persecution in the surrounding cities.

A Christian neighbourhood has sprung up in Ankawa, and flourishes with Christmas shops and paraphernalia. Want matching Santa suits for the whole family? Feel free to barter with the shop owner, because you can always proposition the other local Christmas shop down the street.

Nahrain Thomas decided to open a seasonal shop in Ankawa two weeks ago. Most days when you wander by there are two to three people browsing or talking to the new shop owner. Thomas offers a different perspective, though. The former English teacher says that business is slow because of the poor economic situation.

Roughly 90 percent of the 400,000 residents in Ankawa are Christians, specifically Assyrians or Chaldean Catholics. That number doesn’t include the unaccounted for Christian refugees who have fled ISIS in the surrounding cities and now live in makeshift homes made of rubble and half built buildings.

For most, this will be their second displaced Christmas. That won’t stop them from taking part in Christmas traditions, though. Mar Elia Church, which shelters 4,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from throughout Iraq, will be holding Christmas mass and dinner. Dinner will almost certainly include kleche, a traditional Iraqi Christmas cake made with dates.

Christians aren’t the only ones who celebrate Christmas, though. It’s caught on to the wealthier families as a fun family tradition. Many say they will celebrate Christmas by exchanging presents and spending time with their friends.

There are even a few tree lighting ceremonies throughout the city, at the high end hotels and the shopping complexes. The local radio station’s Christmas hour music plays in the background. Children decked out in green and red shiny outfits circle around a man in a Santa suit as if it’s absolutely normal. And the truth is, it is.

Taylor Smith is an American freelance journalist living in Iraqi Kurdistan.

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