In multicultural Lebanon, Nativity scenes are common in public places

IMAGE: CNS photo/Johnny Antoun

By Doreen Abi Raad

BEIRUT (CNS) — Amid the turmoil in the
Middle East and persecution of Christians in surrounding countries, the
Christmas spirit is evident in Lebanon: sparkling lights, decorated trees and
even mangers in public places.

“Wherever you go you can find Christmas
decorations,” even in the cities and the places where the residents are
Muslim, Maronite Father Joseph Soueid told Catholic News Service.

“I feel that here in Lebanon, we have
this grace, that really, Jesus is the reason for the season,” said the
priest, pastor of St. Takla Parish, which serves 6,850 Maronite Catholic families.
With seating for just 280 people, the church overflows with the faithful for
each of its eight Masses on Sundays and has generated 24 vocations in the past
eight years. Its outdoor manger near the entrance to the church is just a few
steps away from a busy street intersection.

Father Soueid noted that because most of the
municipalities in Lebanon are a mix of Christian and Muslim, the influence of
Christianity gives the Lebanese an opportunity to “make this season a
season of joy.”

Muslims also have attended and continue to
attend Christian schools in Lebanon. So it follows that “when they grew up,
they found themselves familiar with our traditions and with the way we
celebrate our great celebrations, like Christmas, like Easter,” Father
Soueid said.

The splendor of Christmas is not only a
feast for the senses in Lebanon, but also a witness of Christianity, he said.

“Sometimes you can feel the spirit of
Christmas by the choirs that come out of the churches during this season to
public places to sing the glory of Jesus,” Father Soueid added.

“That’s why I consider that in Lebanon, we do not have a big problem when we spread the good news” through the
media, on TV, magazines, “everywhere,” he said. “We can share
the way we think openly without having any fear of the others. Because they
accept us.”

At City Mall, huge cutout stars, glistening Christmas
trees and garlands adorn the tri-level shopping concourse. There is also a
sprawling, rustic, miniature crafted scene reminiscent of a Lebanese red-roofed
village from centuries ago: women at the well with jugs of water, shepherds
with their sheep, people gathering in the center square.

The Nativity is prominently featured in the
display. Nestled in a cave, Mary and Joseph lovingly gaze upon the newborn
King, his arms outstretched, lying in a simple manger illuminated with a soft
light. Livestock surround the Holy Family. Outside the cave, the Wise Men have
already arrived to pay homage to the savior; a shepherd tends to his sheep,
with his head cocked toward baby Jesus.

Shoppers stroll by — Christians and Muslims
— many stopping to get a close look at the magical scene and to snap pictures.
Young children typically rush ahead of their parents to step up and lean
against the translucent railing to get the closest view possible.

That’s just what 5-year-old Angelina Youssef
did, arriving ahead of her mother, Samar, who pushed 1-year-old Roy in a stroller.

“It’s amazing,” the mother said of
the mall’s manger display. “Kids like it. We come every year to see it. It
gives us the Christmas spirit.”

Gazing at the manger, Samar Youssef, a Maronite
Catholic from Beirut, said: “Everything sparkles. Christmas is when
Jesus was born, so we must always remember this before we think about trees and
gifts. Jesus is the joy of Christmas.”

Grace Abou Tayeh smiled as her 1-year-old son,
Joe, looked with wonder at the creche.

“I like when my son sees Jesus inside
so he won’t forget what’s the meaning of this holiday,” she told CNS.

Her husband, Charbel Abou Tayeh,
also Catholic, pointed to the appeal of Christmas within other faiths.

“The birth of Jesus is for all mankind,
so no matter what the religion is — Christian, Muslim — it’s for everyone, so
we all share the happiness of Christmas here in Lebanon,” said Charbel Abou Tayeh.

“And I’m seeing it, even all my Muslim
friends have (Christmas) trees, and some even have the baby Jesus in their
houses,” he said, calling it an example of “the unique culture of our
country.” With 18 religious sects represented in Lebanon, he added, “we’re
still hanging on here,” referring to the Christian presence.

In Beirut’s Sassine Square, a life-size
manger scene is featured next to a towering cone-shaped Christmas tree. Mary
and Joseph — an angel between them — look upon the empty crib, filled with

Admiring the site as he passed, George
Abdul Malak, a Greek Orthodox from Beirut, told CNS, “It’s a part of our
culture that even in homes in Lebanon, we find this accompanying the tree all
the time, the creche.” He added that many people wait until Christmas Eve
to put baby Jesus in the crib.

“Maybe globally we don’t find the
custom of creches, we find (Christmas) trees more,” Abdul Malak said. But
in Lebanon, the presence of a creche in a public place “means that we have
some kind of freedom of expression.”

Karim Al Younis, a Shiite Muslim visiting
Lebanon from Basra, Iraq, stopped to gaze at the manger scene. Asked how he
feels about the display, he told CNS, “What can you see here, except
peace, love and family?”

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