Continuing with “12 Countries in 12 Days of Christmas”, we’ve come to one of our most surprising and amazing countries: Morocco. This was a question we wondered, even knowing that the majority of the country is Muslim. Had the Christmas hype traveled as far as here, and is it celebrated in any form? Our good friend Lynn from Maroc-o-phile.com is an expert on all things Maroc, and was gracious enough to help us discover what the “holiday season” in Morocco is like—we’ll give you a quick hint: it’s not in December at all.
Does Morocco Celebrate Christmas?
Christmas is not typically celebrated by Moroccans, who are largely Muslim (apart from a small Jewish community). Many of the foreign residents of Morocco (the largest number of whom are French), celebrate Christmas in the traditions of their own countries and may attend services at the Catholic Churches present in larger Moroccan cities.
Because Morocco is an easy and attractive destination for European tourists during the Christmas and New Year vacation, many hotels organise special dinners or parties during this season. These are often quite expensive and may be a uniquely Moroccan blend of European Christmas symbols (such as decorated Christmas trees) and oriental entertainment (such as local musicians and belly dancers).
In my experience, many Moroccans do not understand the distinction between Christmas and New Year. I have often been wished a “Happy New Year” in the days before Christmas (when in fact, in my own Scottish culture, it is bad luck to wish this before midnight on 31 December!).
Christmas decorations are available (normally from the guys selling dried fruit, who also seem to have the supply chain monopoly on wedding decorations), but even the inflatable Santa Claus tend to be put up over new year, not at Christmas!
Morocco – like all Muslim countries – celebrates its high days and holidays according to the lunar calendar. Because of the mis-match with the Gregorian calendar, each festivity moves around 12 days earlier each year. Moroccan new year was just a few weeks ago and was celebrated by children and teenagers lighting fires in each neighbourhood and drumming pottery drums stretched with animal skins. That seems quite fitting in the winter, but the festivities are the same when Achoura (as the 10th day of the new year is called) comes around in Spring, Summer or Autumn!
What is Eid? How do Moroccans celebrate it?
‘Eid’ means festival or celebration in Arabic. In Islamic practice, there is the ‘big’ Eid (Eid el-kebir or Eid al adha) and the ‘small Eid’ – Eid el-sghir or Eid al fitr. The latter, the smaller one, marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight. Once Ramadan is over, families get together to mark the transition back to the regular pattern of life.
The ‘big Eid’ is a really special occasion. In the days leading up to Eid, families stock up on provisions and those who can afford it will buy a sheep. After morning prayers – often open air and in public to accommodate the numbers of worshippers and local dignitaries wishing to take part – each family slaughters its sheep in the halal tradition (facing Mecca, with an Islamic benediction and by slitting the throat). Eid el Kebir is an occasion for Muslims to recall the story found in the Torah, Bible and Holy Quran of Abraham’s preparedness to sacrifice his son for God, before it was replaced by a sheep. It is also a time for sharing with family, friends and those less fortunate.
What foods/meals are a part of the holiday?
Typically, the day of Eid al-kebir begins after prayers with a big breakfast shared among the family. At this time, male members of the family may be dealing with the sheep or seeking out an itinerant butcher to perform the task. In our family in Essaouira, breakfast consists of many bread and wheat-based specialities such as puffy, round batbot breads; flat, flaky msimen pancakes and round, holey baghrir. These are served with local olive and argan oils, smen (clarified butter often flavoured with fresh thyme or oregano), honeys and jams. As with all special occasions in Morocco, mint tea, cakes and cookies are also offered in great quantities!
The meat slaughtered on the day of Eid is too fresh to eat, so at lunchtime families eat barbecued brains and skewers of offal (liver, heart, etc). This is not a festival for the squeamish or vegetarian!
On the second day of Eid, dishes are prepared using the sheep (or mutton) meat, such as tajine (a kind of hotpot prepared with meat, vegetables and dried fruits in a dish with a conical lid). Some meat is left to dry on the roof terrace to last through the coming months. This is called gdid and has a very strong flavour which many people prefer not to eat.
No part of the sheep is wasted. Youngsters go from door to door, collecting the hides for use as rugs or leather. And part of the meat is always given away to family members, families who couldn’t afford their own sheep or to the local mosque for distribution to the needy. Wealthier families may slaughter a cow; families in the desert may substitute a camel.
What songs/music do Moroccans listen to during Eid el-Kebir?
Morocco has a uniquely diverse cultural heritage which is unified in Andalusian music. This musical tradition came to Morocco from Al-Andalus (on the Iberian Peninsula) with the expulsion of Muslim Moors and Jews after the Spanish Inquisition at the end of the 15th century. This music brings on a kind of nostalgia for a time seen as more peaceful and harmonious.
Celebrated every year in the Andalusian Festival of Essaouira, this style of music is often played on Eid TV specials.
What symbols represent Eid el-Kebir best?
The symbols of Eid are the sheep and newly laundered or purchased clothes—like the Sunday-best of a bygone era in the West.
Moroccans love to laugh, and every year there are new jokes about Eid. These are now circulated all the more easily via social media and this year’s focused on the sheep’s final selfie. People even took selfies with their sheep, pre-slaughter!
Eid is really about sharing, and this is even a central part of the typical Eid greeting. For either Eid, Muslims wish each other ‘Eid Mubarak Said’ (in classical Arabic) or ‘Mbarak Awashir’ in the local Moroccan dialect. They both mean ‘Happy Eid’. Traditionally, any blessing or good wishes would be accepted and reciprocated, so the response to either is ‘Alina ou Alik’, which means ‘for us and for you’.
Lynn Sheppard has lived in Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast for more than 2 years, supporting local non-profits, writing, and becoming an expert on all things Swiri (ie. Essaouiran). She blogs at maroc-o-phile.com as well as for travel industry clients. You can follow Lynn on twitter (@maroc_o_phile) or Facebook (marocophile).