Celebrating Christmas in Lebanon
Beirut - It is this time of the year in Lebanon when people compete, not over politics, but over spreading a festive and merry atmosphere to celebrate Christmas and the new year.
From the capital city of Beirut to small village roundabouts, ornate Christmas trees, flickering lights and nativity scenes pop up the first week of December. City squares and houses are decorated, streets are lighted and shops are adorned. Days before Christmas, the entire country is enveloped in the air of festivity.
Although it is a period for revelling in prayers, Christmas in Lebanon is also an occasion to have fun. Concerts, holiday markets and exhibitions, children’s theatre with Christmas themes and seasonal fairs are organised across the country.
“We have a special Christmas event every day starting from the first of December, including Christmas chants, theatre, parades and concerts in addition to a Christmas market set up in the Roman alley where charities expose and sell their products such as handicrafts and Christmas cookies and other delicacies,” said Aya Younes, an official of municipality of Jbeil, north of Beirut.
The ancient coastal Phoenician city gained additional fame two years ago when its gigantic Christmas tree was featured in the Wall Street Journal as one of the most beautiful holiday decorations in the world. In Jbeil, one can walk among the ruins while enjoying the decorations and glittering lights to the sounds of Christmas carols.
“Even this year, Jbeil’s Christmas tree stands out as the most beautiful in the country. The municipality spends a lot of money and effort to have the city embellished with the most dazzling decorations,” Younes added.
Downtown Beirut displays some of the country’s most lavish decorations. The season kicks off with the official lighting of imposing trees in Martyrs’ Square and Beirut’s refurbished souks where Christmas fairs take place.
“The intention is to create a festive atmosphere in the downtown of Beirut, particularly in the souks, which is the commercial heart of the city where everybody goes for shopping or for entertainment… It is the natural place where we concentrate all activities, which begin early December and go through the first week of January,” said Mounir Douaidy, general manager of Solidere, the company in charge of redeveloping Beirut’s central district.
He said the souks would host three main exhibitions related to Christmas in addition to a Santa’s village, offering different activities and attractions for children. “The whole process, including decorations, events, parades and exhibitions, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars attracting thousands of people,” Douaidy said.
For Christmas fair organiser Nayla Bassili, it is a special time celebrated with fanfare and enthusiasm in the country. “We do celebrate the occasion fully,” she said. “There is Christmas decoration in the streets that attract many people and I hear that many people from abroad, including Lebanese expatriates, are coming for the holidays.”
“We feel the Christmas spirit everywhere but Christmas markets here are not exactly the same as the traditional ones that we find in Europe, where hot wine is served and items on display are exclusively related to Christmas,” Bassili said.
Christmas celebrations in Lebanon tend to be similar, yet a bit different from the other countries. About two weeks before Christmas Day, sprouted beans and seeds such as chickpeas, broad beans, lentils, oats and wheat are grown on damp cotton wool. By Christmas, the plants will have reached 6 or more inches in length and the shrubberies are placed under the tree and decorate crèches and other parts of the home to mark the birth of Jesus.
“In the past, the crèche was the only Christmas decoration that we had. The shrubs were grown probably to celebrate a new life — the birth of Jesus. The Christmas tree and Father Christmas were later introduced in Lebanon, being imported from the West,” said 80-year-old Mona Zaytouni.
With the recent election of a president of Lebanon after more than two years of political vacuum, the country is hoping for a busy festive season. “It is a positive thing that encourages tourists and Lebanese expatriates to come to Lebanon for the holidays at a time our direct competitors in the region, namely Turkey and Egypt, are witnessing some sort of instability,” said Pierre Ashkar, head of the Hotel Owners Association in Lebanon, who projected more than 80% occupancy in the hotels around the new year.
Adding to the festive mood, most gift and cloth shops have pre- Christmas sales and food outlets offer special Christmas delicacies and treats, some of which are only available at this time of year.
Though it is home to 18 different sects — with more than 30% of the population Christian — and a turbulent history stemming from these religious differences, the Christmas spirit is embraced across the country, no matter one’s religious background.
“There is no other place in the region than Lebanon to have such a Christmas atmosphere. Look at all these trees and decorations put up in all parts of the country. It is no doubt the only Christmas destination in the Middle East,” Douaidy said.