Syria is in the Middle East, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Lebanon and Turkey. Other neighbors include Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

On Christmas Eve, the outer gates of the homes of Syrian Christians are locked as a reminder of the years of persecution when all worship had to be hidden. Carrying lighted candles, the family prepares a bonfire in the courtyard. The youngest son reads the Gospel story of the Nativity and the father lights the fire. All gather around to observe the particular way that the fire spreads through the wood as it will determine the luck of the household for the coming year. The family sings psalms while the bonfire rages and, when it finally dies down, they make wishes while they take turns jumping over the embers.

Early on Christmas morning, there is a pre-dawn Mass. A bonfire in the center of the churchyard provides light for a joyous procession where the image of the Christ Child is carried around the church, both inside and outside the building.

Syrian children receive gifts at Epiphany from a very original source, the Smallest Camel of the Wise Men. Legend tells that the Wise Men traveled in a caravan with many camels on their way to Bethlehem. The smallest camel was exhausted by the long journey but refused to give up, his desire to see the Christ Child was so great. When the infant Jesus saw the faith and resolve of this loving creature, he blessed it with immortality. Every year the Smallest Camel visits the children with gifts for those who have been good. It is thought that they learn the importance of even the most insignificant of us from example set by the camel.

Traditions from other nations are making inroads in Syria. In this photo of Hamidiyeh Souk in Damascus, shoppers can find all kinds of Christmas tree decorations along with red stockings to hang up on Christmas Eve.

2001 by W. C. Egan