The Question: Is Christmas a bigger event in your country than it was ten years ago? Is this a sign of Westernization or just commercialization?
I live in a predominantly Muslim country, but my family hails from the old town of Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity has been my family's church for hundreds of years. For us it is not only the site of the birth of Jesus but the venue of dozens of family weddings, christenings and communions. To many in the West, Bethlehem is simply a biblical town. Very few make the connection with the town's people, the Palestinians. When Israeli forces besieged Bethlehem in 2002, Palestinian fighters, mostly Muslims, took refuge in the church.
The Western world knows by heart all the Christmas carols, but it did not pay much attention then to the plight of the town, its people or even the church, bombed by the Israeli army. I was not in Bethlehem that year, but kept calling my family to make sure they were fine. My uncles, aunts, and cousins would reassure me that they were safe, although they were homebound and afraid to get close to the windows for fear of Israeli snipers. But they would all ask me the same question: What will happen to our defenders, the fighters in the Church of the Nativity? Many families were involved in smuggling food into the church, and their hearts went out to the fighters when they finally surrendered. Today Bethlehem remains under siege, strangled by an oppressive apartheid wall.
Yes I have been brought up in a predominantly Muslim culture. But my Muslim friends have always celebrated Christmas with us. The more recent commercialization of Christmas is a world wide phenomenon. I am currently in Qatar, where Christmas is mostly evident in shopping malls--partly an effect of commercialization but fortunately also part of the presence of Western and even Arab Christian expatriates. I view the Christmas manifestation partly as a very positive indicator of co-existence and mutual appreciation among religions. But the excessive commercialization robs it of its meanings of giving, loving and sharing.
There is no doubt that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has had its effect --but not to the point that prevents Muslim families (mostly middle- and upper-class) from enjoying Christian celebrations with their Christian friends. Our friends in Jordan organize Santa Claus parties for their kids. They like the joy that the mysterious man in red brings to their children. I remember years ago when an Iraqi refugee from Basra knocked at our door. She said her children would like to look at our Christmas tree up close. My little nieces came down from upstairs to share toys and sweets with her children, happy to have visitors to play with. It was a moment of sharing than transcended religious and class divides.
But for the most part all holidays, whether in the West or in our region, are overtaken by commercialization. Whether it Eid Al Doha, which Muslims celebrated last week, or Christmas this week, many poor families are struggling to provide and bring some joy to their children. In our family our sight and hearts go back to Bethlehem, where our family has been separated from loved ones and continue to celebrate Christmas after Christmas under Israeli occupation.
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