Christmas spirit subdued but alive in Arab world

Friday 18/12/2015
Children pose with a man dressed as Santa Claus in front of a giant Christmas tree outside the Al-Amin mosque in the capital Beirut.

Beirut - While radical Islamic militants destroyed churches, the lat­est in Yemen in De­cember, Christian minorities in the Middle East pre­pared for Christmas celebrations, which are shared by Muslims communities in some countries, including Lebanon, Egypt and Jor­dan.

Christmas is one of the most cel­ebrated holidays of the year in Leb­anon. It is such a special time that religious and political divisions are set aside and nearly everyone em­braces the Christmas spirit.

Economic duress, volatile secu­rity and political instability that gripped the country for years do not hinder Christmas manifes­tations. Ornate Christmas trees, flickering lights and crèche scenes can be seen in windows, on the street, public places and rounda­bouts in Beirut and other cities.

Although it is home to practi­tioners of 18 different sects, with 30% Christians, and a turbulent history stemming from religious differences, the Christmas spirit in Lebanon is alive across the coun­try, no matter the family’s religious background.

“I have put up the Christmas tree, which I hope will be covered with lots of gifts. It will be such a big joy for my 18-month-old daughter, who will have her first real Christmas,” said Rana Habib, a Sunni Muslim housewife.

Christian and Muslim children in Lebanon alike impatiently await a visit from Santa Claus. It is a time of joy for all. “Our Lady Mariam (Mary) and Prophet Isa (Jesus) are venerated in the Holy Quran. It is a good reason for us Muslims to cel­ebrate Christmas,” Habib said.

Kamal Zaidan’s two daughters insist on renovating the Christ­mas tree’s decorations every year. “They put up the tree early in De­cember and spend the day deco­rating it with their cousins, who do not have one because my brother does not allow it,” said Zeidan, a practicing Muslim.

“On Christmas Eve we hold a dinner and the whole family gath­ers around the famous Christmas turkey, which my wife insists on preparing every year. Even my brother participates sometimes. It is an occasion for the whole fam­ily to get together like we do for (Muslim feasts) Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha,” Zeidan added.

In Jordan, where Christians make up some 3.5% of the coun­try’s population of 7.5 million, churches schedule special services for Christmas hymns and carols sung by their choirs and some ho­tels organise Christmas banquets, with Santa Claus distributing gifts to children.

Security at churches is reinforced around Christmas with heavily armed police to abort any breaches by Muslim militants, whose terror plots have included attempted at­tacks on churches.

Some Amman residences and a few shops put up Christmas trees but there is no street or window decorations as in Arab countries with larger Christian communities.

“There’s no Christmas spirit this year either,” complained Amman computer software engineer Issa Farah. “How can we be in the mood to enjoy the joyous season, while Arab people in Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Yemen are being killed in wars and militant violence.”

In Egypt, some shops put on a large display of Christmas-related gifts and goods, including Christ­mas trees, Santa Claus costumes, stockings and heart pots and mugs.

Kerlis Adel, a downtown Cairo gift shop owner, spent weeks pre­paring for Christmas. “I think we will have a great season this year,” said Adel, who placed a figurine of Santa carrying a sack of gifts at the entrance to his shop. “People just want to feel happy after years of gloom.”

For Egypt’s Orthodox Christian Copts, Christmas is celebrated Jan­uary 7th.

Egyptians actually celebrate Christmas twice within about a week. The country’s majority Muslim population and Christian minority, around 10% of the pop­ulation, celebrate the end of the year on December 31st and call it Christmas. Christmas-related ritu­als are observed from late Novem­ber through Coptic Christmas Eve, a period during which Christians abstain from eating meat, poultry and dairy products.

Many people attend church ser­vices on Christmas Eve. The Coptic language is used in the rites, which are often broadcast live on nation­al television.

With the spectre of the funda­mentalist Muslim Brotherhood dissipated, Egyptian Christians an­ticipated a joyful season.

“Egypt has returned to its people after the Islamists had gone,” Cop­tic Bishop Abdel Messiah Baseet said. “We feel very safe this year.”

Millions of Egyptians — Mus­lim and Christian — expressed joy when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a Sunni Muslim, joined Christmas rites at an eastern Cairo cathedral where Coptic Pope Tawadros II celebrated mass. Sisi was the first Egyptian president to attend the service.

Baseet said he expects the presi­dent to make a similar gesture in 2015.