BEIRUT, Lebanon — Groups of children dressed as pirates, witches and clowns giggled excitedly as they moved from house to house, collecting candy and treats.
Ghost and superhero masks hung in rows from storefronts. A little Captain Hook banged a drum while a boy dressed as an angel and a piggy-tailed princess sang, “Saint Barbara, she is running.”
This isn’t an American town at Halloween. It's Beirut, Lebanon, where excited kids are celebrating Saint Barbara’s Day.
Every year, on the eve of the Dec. 4 holiday, Christian children across Lebanon dress in costumes and go trick-or-treating. Neighbors prepare sweets, boiled barley and pomegranate seeds, as well as money to hand out in the Christian communities that make up around 40 percent of the country's population.
Teacher Mary Assaf explained the story of Saint Barbara as her class of 7-year-olds at Beirut's Our Lady of Peace School and Convent prepared masks for trick-or-treating.
“Barbara wanted to be Christian, but her father was a great leader and the people were pagan. They worshipped stones and statues,” she said on Tuesday.
Assaf said Saint Barbara had learned about Jesus from a monk working in her father’s palace. Her father soon learned her secret and ordered her execution. She escaped by wearing various disguises, and thanks to one well-timed miracle.
According to the legend, as her father's soldiers were closing in, Barbara ran into a newly planted wheat field where, miraculously, the wheat grew instantly high enough to cover her.
“The wheat symbolizes Christianity as it grew and spread across the globe. It is also a symbol of the bread of the Holy communion,” Assaf explained.
“In the night we go to the people's houses and sing songs for them,” said 11-year-old Patasia as her class discussed what costumes they planned to wear. “My favorite thing is the sweets the people make us. They are so delicious.”
“People give us chocolate and money too,” said 11-year-old Roy.
To the laughter of peers, Roy added, “I’m going to dress as a princess,” then made ballet-style moves at the back of the classroom.
In the kindergarten class downstairs, the little ones were learning a fairytale version of Saint Barbara’s story, which included her refusal to marry a non-believer chosen by her father.
“She didn’t want to marry the prince because he didn’t love Jesus,” said 5-year-old Daisy.
“She had to wear a mask on her eyes like this,” said another tiny class member, demonstrating with a Panda mask the children had made that morning.
The story of Saint Barbara varies from region to region. Some say her father’s soldiers dressed as beggars, going from house to house to search for her. In parts of Europe, it is believed that Saint Barbara's father locked her in a high tower to protect her virginity. In Western countries, Saint Barbara is better known as the patron Saint of artillerymen, miners and firemen. The city of Santa Barbara in California bears her name.
Despite her disguises, Saint Barbara was eventually caught and beheaded by her own father, according to Catholic history. While she is one of the oldest saints, her existence, dating back to the 3rd century, has been disputed by church historians and rejected by many Christian denominations.
But Assaf says the story holds powerful lessons for young believers.
“There are many lessons we teach the children from Saint Barbara’s story,” said teacher Assaf. “She was very, very rich but she left everything behind for God. The mask symbolizes the new face or way of life we choose to live for our religious beliefs.”
Celebrating Saint Barbara’s Day in Lebanon is not always easy. In Tripoli, recent clashes have canceled plans for many families.
“Of course the children are disappointed, but it’s just too dangerous to let them go out with all the fighting in Tripoli now,” George Rahban, a father of three, said from Tripoli.
So far this week, 12 people have been killed during street clashes between rival Sunni and Shia sects in Tripoli. At least 49 more have been injured, many of them civilian bystanders.
Rahban said on Tuesday that his family would spend the evening with relatives in a nearby village where the children could still dress up and enjoy sweets and gifts from the extended family.
In Beirut, many parents are also keeping their children at home.
“There are normally kids everywhere,” said a local shopkeeper as he adjusted costume displays at the front of his store. “You can see it’s mostly just the older kids out this year.”
At Our Lady of Peace, younger grades enjoyed their trick-or-treating within the school grounds. Teachers painted their faces before the kids headed to the classrooms of the older students passing out candy.
“We didn’t want them to miss out so we planned some activities for them to enjoy here at the school,” said Assaf.