By Honour Astill and Kieran Hurwood
Sometimes it’s a bit on the nose to mention Christmas. The well-intentioned song Do They Know It’s Christmas?, was released in 1984 by Band Aid to raise money for the then famine-struck Ethiopia – in which the majority of citizens celebrate Christmas. The song would likely have been seen as tone-deaf to Ethiopians themselves, but successfully tugged the heartstrings of relatively well-off European listeners, raising £8 million that year alone for the cause. Perhaps something about the so-called Christmas spirit rightly makes us stop and consider the wider world.
But as we take this much-needed break for the next month or so, we want to remind readers of those for whom the season doesn’t provide a break – whose good tidings are drowned out by rocket explosions, who can’t decorate their house because it has been destroyed, and those who will feel aching absences at family gatherings. Though their Christmas traditions vary greatly from nation-to-nation: from Ukraine to Ethiopia to Nagorno-Karabakh to the city of Gaza, war ravages the holiday period for some. This Christmas, let us remember that peace can never be taken for granted.
In Ukraine, pre-Christian traditions are seamlessly integrated into modern holiday celebrations, including decorating the house with symbolic wheat didukh to serve as a reminder of the manger in Bethlehem. Did Moroz, a taller Ukrainian analogue to Father Christmas, traditionally disseminates gifts to children. A spoonful of kutia – a dish of honey, grain, and poppy seeds – is traditionally thrown at the ceiling, and the amount that sticks supposedly portends the abundance of the coming year’s harvests.
But celebrating Christmas following the Russian invasion “is not the same; it feels wrong to be happy and festive”. according to our Ukrainian Features Editor, Liza. Speaking on how the war affected her last Christmas, Liza says that the war separated her family meaning the holidays were “difficult to enjoy”, but noted that some other Ukrainian families celebrated as normal “in order to create a sense of normality and indulge in traditions and being with family – for those who still can”.
Palestine is home to over 50,000 Palestinian Christians, where Christmas is a public holiday and celebrated by Christians and Muslims alike. On Christmas Eve, a procession of bagpipe-players march around Bethlehem. Following this, celebrants attend a church adorned by a silver star, the spot in which tradition says Jesus was born.
For Gazan Christians, however, the short pilgrimage to Bethelehm is an impossible dream. Last Christmas, Israeli officials denied all travel permits for the West Bank to celebrate Christmas. Hamas temporarily outlawed public Christmas celebrations, so last year Gazans celebrated Christmas at home, perhaps cooking burbara, a sweet of wheat and nuts, for neighbours. This year, Gazans also suffered the loss of the Church of Saint Porphyrius, the third-oldest Christian site in the world; the airstrike also killed 18 Palestinians. It remains to be seen how the siege of Gaza will have played out by late December. So far, 15,000 have been killed and the psychological, infrastructural, and humanitarian costs have been immense.
The Armenian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on 6 January. The next Armenian Christmas will also be five days after the Republic of Artsakh’s government is obliged to dissolve. The Republic of Artsakh was a self-declared breakaway state in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region under Azerbaijan’s control but populated by ethnic Armenians. Azerbaijan saw a decisive victory and ordered all approximately 100,500 Armenians out of Karabakh in September, who had just endured mistreatment described by observers as amounting to genocide under Azerbaijan’s rule.
Karabakhis spent most of last year under blockade after Azerbaijan forbade access to the only road into Karabakh. Many suffered malnutrition as supermarket shelves were devoid of basic foods. Last Christmas Day, the Red Cross was finally permitted to dispense humanitarian cargo, a small respite. But residents still reported a lack of ingredients to make the traditional Christmas eve meal, khetum – consisting of fish, rice pilaf, and raisins. This year, however, Karabakhis will be celebrating Christmas as displaced refugees in centres near Yerevan, unsure if they will ever be able to return in their lifetime.
Illustration by Francesca Corno