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The Lebanese Halloween

Every third of December in Beirut, children in masks roam their neighborhood knocking on doors, collecting sweets and chocolate, to celebrate the Eid al-Barbara, the feast of Barbara. Screaming heyshlee Barbara - run away Barbara - it has become a tradition to compete with each other for the biggest stash of goodies.

A local legend, the historical figure of Barbara is considered a saint by many Lebanese. She is, naturally, the patron saint of gunmen and those who handle explosives, and her festival is celebrated rather like Halloween, which is a festival relatively new to Lebanon.

And, just like St Valentine and St Nicholas, this saint has become a marketable concept and an opportunity to sell, in this case, costumes and gory masks. 

Scary like politics

In the past, local kids used to conjure up frightening disguises with whatever they could find at home. But today, every bit as scary, mass-produced plastic masks of monsters and Lebanese politicians bought from street vendors are the custom.

“Animal masks, such as lion and tiger, are the most popular with small kids,” says Jeanne d’Arc Zakkareye, a street vendor in Saide, Achrafieh. “Dora the Explorer costumes are all the rage, followed by Batman and witches.”

And, of course, “Aoun and Geagea masks are really popular around here. But if you ask me, I wouldn’t pick either of them,” she adds.

Does she believe in Barbara’s sainthood? “Well, no saint was able to cure my brother,” she says. Zakkareye points to a crippled man crouched on the pavement next to her stall. His legs are deformed.

In Hamra, “the Saad Hariri mask is the top seller in my shop,” says Souad [she prefers to be known as Em Samer], owner of Dani, a shop in Makdesi Street.  “Kids are coming in with their parents to take a look at the masks, but this year few people are buying.”

Zakkareye agrees, adding that if people buy they are going for the cheap masks. Maybe the global recession is even hitting the mask market even though they only cost 1,000 - 3,000 LL.

Local legend

According to local legends, Barbara was a young Roman girl who lived in the Beqaa region of Lebanon. Her father was governor of the Roman city of Baalbek and loyal to pagan gods. He kept his daughter under lock and key in a Rapunzel-style tower to avoid all contact with the outside world.

“In Baalbeck we celebrate Saint Barbara with a huge street festival,” says Rima El Berkachy, a Beqaa resident who swears that Barbara really does originate in Baalbek.

The story goes that instead of letting down her hair to welcome illicit suitors, Barbara used her solitary confinement to do some serious soul searching. She converted to Christianity and disguised herself when she escaped from the tower to elude her father - hence the tradition to dress up in costumes and masks.

Alas, Barbara’s story was no fairy tale, and there is no happy ending. Her father gave orders to have her beheaded. Legend has it that lightning struck and the earth swallowed her body; her father died shortly after.

The patron saint of gunners

“For most of us, Barbara is just a childhood tradition and we celebrate it regardless of our religion,” says Souad, pointing out that she was a Christian married to a Muslim. She believes that few Lebanese seem to ponder on the religious significance of the day, preferring to focus on the carnival fun aspect.

In 1975, it was a different story. “Militias smashed the windows of the shops in Hamra selling masks,” said Souad. Why? Back then, wearing masks to mark a religious custom was frowned upon.

Phallic fallacies

Traditional food for Barbara is a dish of sugared boiled barley. “We also eat qatayef, pancakes, stuffed with ashta, clotted cream, or walnuts,” says Kamal Mouzawak,founder of Souk al-Tayyib farmers market.

According to Mouzawak, the reason for serving the barley is linked to when Barbara tried to escape from her father. While hiding in a field, the wheat sprouted and kept her hidden – that’s until soldiers captured her.

The sprouting wheat is also considered a symbol of fertility by Baalbeck’s community, says anthropologist Joelle Haroun. Also the “stuffed” qatayef – go figure.

There are several churches in Lebanon dedicated to Barbara and in Baalbek the Greek Catholic cathedral is dedicated to her.

“In the early Byzantine era the court of Jupiter's temple was converted to a church dedicated to Saint Barbara,” says Mouzawak.

There seemed to be fewer kids ‘trick-or-treating’ in our neighborhood this year. It would be a shame if traditional Barbara night of mayhem was left behind by Halloween. Perhaps if a politician's mask doesn’t appeal, kids could make their own costumes again.

And then they should get out on the streets and be glad that this December no one went out on a senseless bender to smash up the masks and magic of a night all Lebanese can enjoy.

  • Lama

    a person like el sayid Hassan Nasrallah no one can make fun of him......bil libnaneh min 2oul ma 3ash yale yitmas5ar 3a saydna

    October 18, 2011

  • mizo

    Enter commentplease where can i get the dora exporer costums in beriut ???

    August 12, 2011

  • samer nouh

    i hate people when they say lebanese halloween or what ever it's eid el berbara.. saint barbara's day....dats the first impression i got when i saw this... but when i read it... i discovered that there's another subject in it and more important... and which's so sadly true.... and yes everythin in lebanon is for sell or used to get money..and the worst is that people are taking care more about their costumes in st barbara's day.... then the meaning of it ... all the people i know wear or have worn costumes in that day.. but none of them had ever think about praying for the saint.. we 're just a materialestic superfecial comunity we have to admit it...

    December 6, 2010

  • Camiille

    even this feast has become a political issue. what do the kids know about political affiliation.In Lebanon they just imitate their parents ........ puppets on a string!

    December 12, 2008

  • MO

    yes how come there are no Nasrallah masks!! Has anyone seen any?? Keep one for me for next Barbara. and I think the political masks are great ........at least we are free to display them these days

    December 7, 2008

  • Ewa

    i think it's a shame to enter political figures into the Barbara feast . Why to politicize a nice tradition? The article gave me new information about St barbara that I did not know before, thank you. As mentionned in the end of the article, I also noticed that there were less kids out and about during this evening... we should not let old traditions die ... come on kids let us see you in big numbers next barbara!!ill provide the goodies ;);)

    December 6, 2008

  • Pedro

    interesting.........where in Jounieh? wonder why mainly men. can you give some more information on this please

    December 6, 2008

  • sophia

    It seems to have gone unnoticed that there is no mask of Hassan Nasrallah. Doesn't anyone wonder why? it is because he is sacred - untouchable. The deification of Nasrallah has started. There will be a lot more to come. Pity the nation indeed.

    December 5, 2008

  • Sandra

    Great article! We should stick to OUR halloween instead of importing celebrations that are not related to our culture!

    December 4, 2008

  • Roula Koussaifi

    Thanks Sabi for this article. It is good to read about such things from tim eto tim eespecially now that poeple forgot about the real meaning of St Barabara, all the best, love

    December 4, 2008

  • Francessa

    So interesting to hear about St Barbara...thanks for this article.... I also heard that every year in Jounieh, there is a big party to celebrate this special day where mostly men dress up and wear masks.

    December 3, 2008