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Iraqi-Assyrians' merry Christmas traditions survive and thrive in London Open in fullscreen

Robert Cusack

Iraqi-Assyrians' merry Christmas traditions survive and thrive in London

Iraqi Christians praying before the Virgin Mary at Christmas in Baghdad [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 December, 2016

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The Assyrian Christian community in London is growing as large numbers of Christians escape Islamic State in Iraq and their vivacious Christmas celebrations are bigger than ever.

"To be honest, there's not really any difference between Christmas for Assyrians and Christmas in Europe,"  said Emmanuel Yacoub, a prominent member of the Assyrian community in London.

"Except for the night before Christmas - then we party all night long."

Christmas in the Assyrian Church is a time of community, involving drinking, dancing and general merry-making. It is celebrated on December 25 and the central celebration of Jesus' birth is no different from other Christian traditions.

On Christmas Eve, many of London's 8000 Assyrian Christians make a trip to the church, where prayer and celebrations continue from 8pm until 5am the following morning.

People are not required to stay at the church the entire time however and come and go at their leisure throughout the night.

The sheer numbers of worshippers at the Assyrian church in Hanwell, West London, has become so large, in fact, that there are plans to build an extension. This is in contrast to the dwindling congregation numbers at Anglican churches, which have been sharply declining for the last twenty years.

On Christmas Eve, many of London's 8000 Assyrian Christians make a trip to the church, where prayer and celebrations continue from 8pm until 5am the following morning.

The reason for such an extended celebration on Christmas Day lies in the Assyrian's prolonged period of advent - the month that precedes Christmas.

Assyrians fast throughout Advent in the same way that other Christians fast during Lent - the forty days of preparation that come before Easter - when people give up various foods or choose to fast in some way.

So when it comes to Christmas Day, most people relax throughout the day with their families  - eating food, drinking alcohol and watching TV.

Come the night-time again however and the community comes back together again.

The Assyrian Society in Ealing, West London, is a social club for the Assyrian community which was founded in 1969. Each year they host a dinner and a dance for around 150 people, where singers, dancers and entertainers keep party-goers entertained.

One of these dances is called the Khigha - where everyone in the hall has to dance and shake hands with every single person in the room.

"If it's a big hall then you can see one end of the hall but you can't see the other," said Yacoub.

Christmas for the community has been blighted in recent years by the arrival of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Looking at a map of IS' governed land is remarkably similar to a demographic map of the Assyrian population.

"Life in Syria and Iraq now [for Christians] is very poor," said Albert, a manager at the Assyrian Society.

"The Christmas spirit is still there though - even if you put a bullet in their heads, they are still Christians - they still celebrate Christmas."

Large numbers of these Christians have come to Europe in order to live in a Christian country instead of an Arab Muslim country for cultural reasons.

"We're no different from European Christians in Iraq," said Albert.

"We celebrate in the same way as Europeans, we drink in the same way - there's a reason we all came over to Europe."

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