Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent and Burbara herald Christmas

The countdown to Christmas began with the November 27 start of Advent, followed by Eid al-Burbara, or St. Barbara’s Day, on December 4.
Many shops and high streets have been in full swing since October though. When living in London, such early start removed all the magic from the season when everything in town went into Christmas mode three months ahead of time.

Santa or Mrs. (Mich) Claus?
December used to be a month I wished I could sleep through to reemerge on January 7. Not only was it the “silly season” of Inebriation and useless spending, but also the time of dark days, when lights had to be switched on as of 2 p.m., and of inclement weather, when you only wanted to hole up.

Luckily in Dubai, the season of spending and gluttony and intoxication is made bearable thanks to the sun and the heat. You can get away with Christmas lunch and then go back to work.

But there are some events in the buildup to Christmas that remain fond memories, such as preparing the Advent calendar and Burbara.

Advent, from the Latin word adventus meaning coming in Latin, is observed in many Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. It is the beginning of the Western liturgical year and commences on the fourth Sunday before December 25, which fell on November 27 this year.

The progression of the season is marked, mostly by children, with an Advent calendar. We used to make these at school and take them home just in time to start opening the little windows and see the holy image and story leading up to the Nativity. 

"The Little Town" Advent Calendar first published in 1946
The origin of the Advent Calendar can be traced back to the 19th century, when religious families made a chalk line for every day in December until Christmas Eve. The first known Advent Calendar was handmade in 1851. The first printed ones were made in 1908 by a Swabian parishioner son, Gerhard Lang (1881-1974). He produced little colored pictures that could be affixed on a cardboard each December day.

The Advent Calendar’s popularity started to spread worldwide, but World War II terminated the success of this German tradition. The cardboard was rationed and it was forbidden to produce calendars with pictures. 

Advent Calendar 44 by Richard Sellmer
The first printed calendars after the war were by Richard Sellmer of Stuttgart in 1946. He resurrected the commercial Advent Calendar and is responsible for its widespread popularity. His company, Richard Sellmer Verlag, today maintains a stock of over 1,000,000 calendars worldwide. Advent Calendars filled with chocolate were already available in 1958.

The second fond memory I have leading up to Christmas is of Eid al-Burbara, or Saint Barbara's Day. It is celebrated on December 4 in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine to honor Saint Barbara, who disguised herself in many different characters to elude the Romans who were persecuting her. Thus children wear masks and go around the neighborhood, much as in Halloween, and are offered a porridge-like delicacy called Burbara.

Burbara awakens all the senses with the smell of spices and smooth hot texture. It is made of boiled wheat grains, pomegranate seeds, raisins, anise and sugar and is offered to the children. It gives off a wonderful warm smell that I still remember.

Eid al-Burbara signals the countdown to Christmas. And although Advent is a period of fasting, Burbara is something that can be eaten during this lent period because it doesn’t include dairy or meat products.

The Eid al-Burbara story tells how Barbara supposedly ran through a freshly planted wheat field, which grew instantly to magically cover her path. 

St. Barbara (Wikipedia)
Accounts place St. Barbara in the 3rd century. As one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, she continues to be recognized as the patron saint of artillerymen, military engineers, miners and others who work with explosives because of her old legend's association with lightning. Many of the 13 miracles in a 15th-century French version of her story hinges on the security she offered her devotees, who would not die without making confession and receiving extreme unction.

Various versions differ on the location of St. Barbara’s martyrdom, which is given as Tuscany, Rome, Antioch, Baalbek, and Nicomedia.

According to tradition, Barbara was the daughter of the pagan Dioscurus. On discovering that she became a Christian, her father tried to kill her, but she was miraculously transported out of his reach. Dioscurus denounced her to the authorities. Despite being tortured, she refused to denounce her faith. Her father beheaded her and was immediately struck by lightning and reduced to ashes. As a result of her father's fate, St. Barbara's prayers are especially sought as protection against thunderstorms and fire. 

If you would like to try your hand at Burbara, I found my Mom, Vicky’s recipe. We used to make a lot to share with all the neighbors, so I have cut the ingredients to make a large bowl or six-eight generous servings.

Burbara (photo)
  • 250g crushed peeled or shelled wheat
  • 250g dried apricots
  • 250g raisins
  • 1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon of cloves
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, ground
  • 2 teaspoons anise seeds, ground
  • 10 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
  • 100g crushed walnuts
  • 100g almonds (peeled, halved, soaked in hot water)
  • 1 pomegranate, seeded
  • Wash wheat and soak overnight. Drain, place in a pot and cover it with cold water just above the wheat. Bring to a boil until the wheat is tender. Drain the wheat and boil again in clean water.
  • When it boils, reduce the heat and add the spices -- cinnamon, fennel, anise and sugar.
  • Wash raisins, dice apricots and add to the boiling mix. Boil for another 10 minutes or until the wheat and raisins puff up.
  • Serve hot with almonds and crushed walnuts and pomegranate seeds on top.
There’s still time to make your own Advent Calendar, if you don’t have one already. And once you’ve tried Burbara, the countdown to Christmas Day is truly on.

Related posts:
Lebanese and Halloween by Elie Fares – October 31, 2011