The winter holidays are a time of abundance, but for Christians in the Middle East, the official start of the Christmas season is marked by a decidedly rustic dish: porridge.
Archbishop Swerios Murad of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem says his congregation will eat boiled wheat kernels this week to mark the Feast of St. Barbara, or Eid el-Burbara in Arabic.
"It's a simple porridge," Murad tells The Salt, "but it's very important that it be sweet."
St. Barbara was an early convert to Christianity in the town of Nicomedia, today Izmit, in modern Turkey, Murad explains. She was the daughter of an over-protective father who built her a home in a tower to cloister her from the outside world. Yet, while her dad was traveling, Barbara converted to Christianity in secret. When her father found out, he tried to kill her.
Barbara fled her tower to the nearby hills. Murad says a shepherd tried to help her by keeping her hidden and feeding her simple porridge. But soldiers on patrol in the area found her and dragged her back to her father. Barbara's father had her tortured and beaten, and when she refused to renounce Christianity, he cut off her head. In divine punishment, he was struck by lightning and died. Because of this lightning, Barbara became the patron saint of those who faced death by fire and, later, artillery. Some folklorists have suggested that Barbara also helped inspire the Brothers Grimm's Rapunzel tale many centuries later.
Murad says his congregation serves a porridge of boiled wheat, called burbara, to remember the food the shepherds gave to the young convert — and to recall the lessons of Barbara's fate.
"She obeyed our God, and not her father, as the Bible told us," Murad says. "First of all we must obey the words of God, and after that we respect our parents."
The feast is celebrated on Dec. 17 according to the Julian calendar, which is followed by Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land, including about 700 families in Israel and the West Bank. This tiny Syriac sect traces its roots to the earliest days of Christianity. Syriac is a dialect of the ancient language Aramaic, and it is still used in liturgical services held in St. Mark's Church, tucked into an alleyway of Jerusalem's Old City.
On Tuesday night, Nadia Ishaq stirred a soup pot full of fresh burbara in her home in the Old City. She decorated the dish with ground chickpea flour, ground coconut heaped across the bowls in the shape of a cross, and candied fennel seeds scattered across the top. Ishaq says she and her neighbors mark the holiday by bringing bowls of their porridge to each other. Syriac Orthodox Christians will celebrate Christmas this year on Jan. 7.
In total, there are nearly 200,000 Christians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Catholics in the Holy Land — and around the world — marked the holiday earlier this month, on Dec. 4, according to the Western church calendar. Bernard Sabella, a retired associate professor at Bethlehem University, says that in his Roman Catholic family, the porridge tradition actually had an air of luxury when he was growing up. Boiling the wheat kernels takes between two and three hours, and the pot sends a rich, cinnamon aroma throughout the house.
"Breakfast was usually a cup of tea with a piece of bread and that's it," he recalls. "And therefore, making burbara was something out of the ordinary for us kids at the time."
In Bethlehem, he says, families often cook more than 2 pounds of wheat for the holiday, well exceeding what the household can eat. Workers take portions of burbara to the office to share with Christian and Muslim colleagues alike. Often, the burbara pot lasts a full week. Along with eating porridge, families also put up the Christmas tree during Eid Al-Burbara.
"It's a celebration of the season," Sabella says. "And for us, when we prepare and eat the burbara porridge, it's really preparing for Christmas."
While there's some doubt about whether St. Barbara actually existed as a historical figure, she is known and celebrated throughout the Christian world. She is the patron saint of the Italian navy. Santa Barbara, Calif., got its name because its founder, the Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino, survived a storm just offshore on the eve of the St. Barbara feast day.
Archbishop Murad says that even though the Jerusalem Christmas season opens with porridge, the food of the holiday gets far richer, with chicken baked in sumac, colorful vegetable salads and sumptuous meat.
"The first thing we think about on Christmas is lamb with rice," he says. "Most Christian families will have it."
Daniella Cheslow is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. She hosts a weekly radio show about food called The Tel Aviv Table.