Christmas spirit survives in Middle East despite all odds
Beirut - “Christmas In Action,” “Christmas at Saifi Village” and “Christmas at the Villa” are among many Christmas bazaars taking place during the holiday season in Lebanon.
In no other place in the Arab world is Christmas spirit and celebration more prominent than in Lebanon, where Christians constitute approximately 40% of its estimated 4.3 million citizens. Glittering lights and Christmas trees illuminate streets and squares; malls and shops are decorated and festive seasonal food is on the menu.
Christmas bazaars, organised by Christian and Muslim charities and civil society organisations, are a main attraction.
“We regularly have two fairs per year, one for Christmas and one in the spring during Easter time,” said Lubna Kalot, from the Imam Sadr Association, a Tyre-based charity founded by Lebanese-Iranian Shia Imam Musa al-Sadr, who went missing in 1978.
“It is an occasion for many associations to participate in our Festive Fair to raise awareness about their activities and raise funds. They come from all parts of Lebanon and from different sects and religions,” Kalot said.
Stands offer a variety of products, including Christmas chocolate arrangements, handmade crafts, jewellery and clothes.
“Christmas is for all the people to enjoy. You find Christmas trees in many Muslim homes. The people are not different or divided. It is only the politicians who have differences,” Kalot said, adding that the association’s chorus has been taking part in Christmas celebrations and singing carols in churches.
In Beirut’s old train station in Mar Mikhael neighbourhood, Christmas carols blared from loudspeakers as shoppers moved around the “Christmas In Action bazaar.” Some 85 Lebanese designers participated in the 6-day event, which included a food court, children’s area and entertainment by young singers and artists.
“It is the sixth edition of ‘Christmas In Action’ and all the revenues this year go to the Children’s Cancer Centre of Lebanon,” said the fair’s organiser Cynthia Bou Khater.
“It is warm and jolly and you can feel the Christmas spirit all over the place. Artisans are very happy to participate knowing that a percentage of their sales will go to a charitable association,” Bou Khater said.
For Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians, who celebrate Jesus’s birth on January 7, the buildup to Christmas Day includes fasting and major masses. While Christmas last year was overshadowed by the bombing of a church in Cairo, the terror threat in Egypt is still eminent following the November 24 attack on a Sufi mosque that killed more than 300 worshippers.
Nonetheless, preparations to celebrate the holy occasion continue. Christmas shoppers are swarming food markets, clothing outlets and patisserie shops, while restaurants and nightclubs offer shows by famous belly dancers and singers.
“Nobody will intimidate us. Christians are threatened by the terrorists as much as Muslims but these humanity-haters will not scare us,” said Catholic priest Rafik Griesh.
Christmas this year also represents much-needed business for hotels and restaurants, said Ehab Shukri from the Federation of Tourist Chambers.
“Hotel occupancy is near full nationwide. Weather conditions and security measures encouraged foreigners to come and Egyptians to travel inside the country,” Shukri said.
While only around 12% of Egypt’s population of 96 million, Egyptian Christians are the biggest Christian minority in the Arab world.
The announcement of the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq brought relief to all Iraqis, particularly Iraqi Christians who were systematically persecuted by the jihadists. “Christmas this year would be different from previous years. Our fears have somehow receded after the elimination of this murderous group,” said Hiba Salem, a Christian government employee.
Assyrian priest Father Touma Hermez said ecclesiastical authorities hope to have Christmas masses in all the churches that were destroyed by the jihadists. “We want prayers and calls for peace and coexistence to rise again from these churches and urge on the government to speed up the reconstruction of Christian villages to secure the return of their displaced inhabitants,” he said.
In the United Arab Emirates, churches are gearing up for community events and Christmas mass with separate services to cater for various language groups and nationalities.
The festive spirit is alive with the sights and sounds of Christmas in shopping malls, hotels, resorts and theme parks, beautifully decorated with Christmas trees. The shops are brimming with newly arrived products, with everyone making a beeline for gifts for family, friends and colleagues.
Nasif Kayed, the founder of The Arab Culturalist, an organisation that aims to connect the East and West through cultural consultancy programmes, said Christmas was celebrated in the UAE like in the West, reflecting the Arab tradition of tolerance, hospitality and generosity to guests and fellow citizens.
“It is not surprising that many Muslim families in the UAE decorate and light up Christmas trees and exchange gifts because their children are living in a multicultural environment and they want to inculcate the spirit of good cheer, celebration and get them engaged in the festive spirit,” he said.