Spreading cheer | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Spreading cheer

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

Gaza is overrun with Santas. Traditional Santas welcome children in shops and streets and offer them small gifts and sweets made by Palestinian women. Mobile Santas cruise the streets in open cars and lorries. There is no snow. There are no airborne sleighs and reindeer to pull them in Gaza. If Santas tried to fly, they would be shot down by Israeli drones.  

Santas perch on rooftops to gaze at the wreckage of Israeli bombed buildings and skirt round pools of sewage to reach poor neighbourhoods where families depend of foreign food aid to survive.  

Santas even show up in fishing boats off the coast of the blockaded and besieged Gaza Strip. Santas await customers in cafes on the shore and at open air restaurants in town. Many Santas wear beards; too few don masks over beards. Children dress in red and wear Santa hats. Decorated Christmas trees abound on Gaza city’s main street named for the Libyan liberation fighter Omar Mukhtar. Near the border with Israel, a Santa raises a Palestinian flag on an electricity pylon. Although Gaza’s Christian community has shrunk to about 3,000 in a population of two million, Christmas has become a celebration for all Gazans.

Suhad Saidam’s workshop has decorated masks with Santas, reindeer and Christmas trees for the home market and abroad. A few hundred have been exported via the West Bank and through Israel to France, Germany and Britain. For three years her business, which employs 40 women, has produced Palestinian embroidery for local handicraft shops and export. During the pandemic, they have made colourful masks.

Since covid makes it impossible for outsiders to go to Gaza, Getty images website provides cheerful photos for those of us who want to pay a virtual visit.

The mood in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, is sad and dour. The usual flow of thousands of pilgrims and tourists into the little town has been cut off by covid this year. As the faith trade provides 80 per cent of income, many Bethlehemites are suffering unemployment and deprivation. Instead of six weeks of Christmas events attended by tens of thousands, Bethlehem is hosting low key celebrations. Early in the month, the recently established Bethlehem Cultural Festival held virtual Santa appearances for children, musical events, discussion programmes, and other entertainments designed to encourage townspeople to stay at home in front of their television sets instead of risking covid outside.

To challenge covid, Bethlehem’s magnificent Christmas tree was lighted on time on Dec.5 and the towns’ buildings blazed with coloured lights in the presence of a scattering of people abiding by covid rules. All outsiders are excluded during the holiday period. The city’s scout band — rather than combined bands from across the West Bank — welcomed the Latin Patriarch when he arrived yesterday to celebrate midnight mass at the Catholic Church of St. Catherine but only a few dozen dignitaries — rather than the traditional crowd of hundreds were permitted to attend. The service was shown live on a large screen mounted in Manger Square. Those watching were masked and social distancing. Bethlehem hotels are empty and curfew closes shops and restaurants early but Santas have also been on hand in person to greet local children and lift their spirits.

Christmas is celebrated on Jan.6 in the 4th century Orthodox Basilica of the Nativity, built on the site believed to be where Jesus was born. The basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the first to be designated under the name of the virtual state, Palestine.

Today’s global, secular Santa, the descendant of an Orthodox Christian saint, is raising morale across a world plagued and locked-down by covid. The legend of Santa Claus began with the

4th-century Orthodox Christian bishop Nicholas of Myra (now Demre in Turkey). He became famous by donating to the poor and earned sainthood for a succession of miracles. During the turbulent 11th century in Asia Minor his bones, placed in a crypt in a local church were moved to the Church of St. Nicholas in Bari in Italy. Later they were taken by sailors, who regarded him as their patron saint, to another church in Venice. Gift giving in Orthodox Christian countries was traditional on Dec.6, his birthday which is also the “name day” of men called Nicholas or Nicos and women called Nicola.  

Many years ago when in the UAE during Ramadan, I was amazed at the display of lights on trees, shops, homes and public buildings. There were lights for Ramadan, lights for the Hindu festival of Lights, and lights for Christmas. Lights galore celebrating three global faiths and three great traditions.  

Here in Cyprus, Christmas lights came to supermarkets, malls and shops early this year for fear that covid lockdown could be imposed at any time and halt seasonal gifting. Householders wound strings of lights round balcony railings, put pots of red-leafed poinsettia in doorways, and hung wreaths on front doors. Outside one block of flats I pass on daily walks stands a huge snowman with a carrot nose and a hat. As in Gaza, there is no snow in Cyprus.  

Writing in The Washington Post about the mood in the US, columnist Kathleen Parker observed.

“As never before in my memory, the holidays arrived early this year with a feast of lights that suggests as much about our resilience as our collective need for a pick-me-up.

“As the worst year in several generations finally grinds to a close, we’re celebrating not just the religious season but also the end of a season of darkness. Between a relentless pandemic and a democracy-challenging election, our suddenly brighter world heralds a common pursuit of happier days. What better way to summon new beginnings than by hanging wreaths, tying bows and stringing lights from every bough and rooftop?”

Is there a better way of celebrating covid survival globally than lighting up the landscape and deploying bearded Santas everywhere and anywhere?

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