What’s in an Arabic Christmas carol?
From unique jingles to translated Western classics, Arabic-language carols and hymns are used to celebrate the Christmas season
Tis the season to be jolly, not just in the West but across the Christian diaspora. From “Jingle Bells” to “Silent Night,” carolers ready to sing their hearts out in living rooms and on snow-steeped doorsteps, even in the Arab world.
Arabic-language carols and hymns celebrate the Christmas season with unique jingles and translated Western classics.
Such Christmas traditions are commonly upheld in countries with home-grown Christian communities: 40.5 percent of Lebanon is Christian, including Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics.
Both Egypt and Syria are home to Christian communities that account for 10 percent of the population. The Holy Land also boasts a sizeable Christian community.
It should come as no surprise then that Christmas songs are recited in Arabic, alongside their French and English caroling counterparts.
“Hymns come from a historic legacy of Christmas from the Byzantine, Syriac, Maronite and Armenian Oriental Christian traditions,” said Akram Rayess, a researcher at the American University of Beirut’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“Many carols, however, are a translation of known Western carols, and began with the works of Protestant missionaries more than 150 years ago. Hymns are more religiously based, whereas carols are more part of popular culture.”
According to musicologists at the AUB, various iconic Arab singers specialize in either mirroring Western ditties or composing Arabic Christmas songs.
“Fayrouz’s songs are mostly translations of Western carols,” Dr Reem Deeb told Al Arabiya News, referring to a singer known as the “First Lady of Lebanese singing” who began her glittering career in the 1960s.
Other Arab mainstays, including Lebanese Magida el-Roumi - who sang the ever-popular “Wulida el-Masih Hallelujah” (“Christ is Born, Hallelujah”) - Julia Boutrous, Joumana Medawwar, Salwa Qatrib and Pascale Saqr perform both original carols and Western translations.
Lebanon also boasts a tradition of popularizing Christmas music by ordained priests-turned-composers.
Father Khalil Rahme’s “Ikhtaliti Ayatuha al-Ajwaku Samawiya” (“Mingle, oh Heavenly Choruses”), and “Layla al-Milad” (“Nativity Night”) by Father Mansour Labaki, are popular choices in the Maronite tradition, said Deeb.
Every Christian Church has its own Christmas chants, added Revered Youssef Tannous , dean of the Faculty of Music at Lebanon’s Holy Spirit University of Kaslik. “Some are in the Arabic language and some in liturgical language as Syriac, Greek, Armenian and Latin.”
He added that “the Arabic-language Christmas carols are less commercial than their Western counterparts. First of all, they are religiously-based and centered on the birth of Jesus as a source of joy and salvation and not on Santa Claus and such material issues.”
Such festive songs are usually heard during the Advent and Christmas season in church services and concerts in Lebanon, she added.
In Lebanon, “great choirs such as the Notre Dame Choir and the Antonine University Choirs have many Arabic Christmas carols in their concerts,” Deeb said.
Arabic-speaking churches even have a tradition of door-to-door caroling in some parts of the country, she added.