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Q: I hear that Baghdad just had its first official public Christmas celebration … What’s up with THAT?

A: While there’s always been a Christian presence in Iraq, and Iraqi Christians have their own Christmas customs, it’s hardly a large public affair in this Islamic country. But, yes, earlier this month, the Ministry of Interior sponsored a somewhat surprising celebration: Christmas in Baghdad, complete with Santa Claus, posters of Jesus and a decorated Christmas tree.

Once, Iraq had nearly 1 million Christians, mainly Chaldeans; that number is now estimated to be around 100,000. The Christmas event sponsored by the Interior Ministry was meant to tamp down sectarian differences and show tolerance for minorities.

In private homes, there are a few traditions particular to Iraqis.

On Christmas Eve, families get together and read the nativity story. Then, they light up a bonfire of dried thorns; if the fire burns down to ashes, it’s considered good luck for the coming year.

After the fire burns down, everyone jumps over the ashes three times and makes a wish, according to “Christmas World,” a Web site that tracks traditions from around the globe.

And in church on Christmas Day, the person leading the service will bless the congregants, then touch a member of the crowd with the “Touch of Peace.” That person will touch the person next to him or her, then the touch will be passed through the crowd until each person has received the blessing.

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