The years of singing carols softly and only half-joking about Santa Claus’ being kidnaped now seem like a bad dream.
But while there are no partridges in pear trees and few maids a-milking, Christmas is making a showing in Beirut this year in a way that it has not done in more than 12 years.
Beirut merchants have decked seemingly every square inch of their store windows with boughs of local greenery, decorated the streets with imported Christmas trees and interspersed the white-red-and-green Lebanese flag among garlands and strings of lights that stretch across the streets.
Business owners also provide the electricity to power them.
Well-lit streets are themselves a Christmas present to the Beirutis. Their government has not been able to provide more than two or three hours of power a day since September. For five months before that, there was none at all because of inter-Christian fighting that knocked out the major power plant.
Curiously, it is the western, Muslim sector of the city that is best decked out for the holiday season. Traditions of the Western Christmas are deeply rooted here, going back to American Protestant missionaries who founded the American University of Beirut in 1866.
On the heels of the missionaries came more secular Americans, who established business and diplomatic communities that flourished into numbers exceeding 10,000 in the early 1970s, before the civil war began.
But certain traditions survived the years of uncertainty and conflict. High on the list is the Beirut Orpheus Choir--a cross-sectarian group of amateur singers performing a Christmas concert this week that will include, among other songs, “What Child Is This,” “Mary Had a Baby” and, in German, “Silent Night.”
And yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus in Beirut. He’s been seen at schools, at hospitals and along shopping areas with the usual collection of wide-eyed youngsters gathered ‘round. Also seen in the western sector was the new American ambassador to Lebanon, Ryan Crocker, on a visit to the campus of American University. Crocker’s arrival on Dec. 1 ended 15 months without U.S. diplomatic representation in Lebanon.
Need a Christmas tree? Sorry, you’re a little late. Three-foot-high trees imported from Holland sold for $50. However, $10 bought you a stunning poinsettia and a basketball-size clump of mistletoe was a steal at $4.
U.S. frozen turkeys sell for $2.50 a pound, but most were already claimed by the weekend. However, because few people have generators powerful enough to run refrigerators, many of the birds bided their time until “defrost day” in grocery freezers.
If Christmas is synonymous with peace, then the season opened here officially on Dec. 3, when the last of the Beirut militias withdrew from the capital. Lebanese army deployment throughout greater Beirut was the first step toward consolidating government control over the city.
Enjoying peace in their own little corner of the world, Beirutis have taken to heart the advice written--in spray-can snow, of course--on a decorated shop window: “It’s Christmas, Let’s Enjoy It.”