TYRE/SIDON, Lebanon: As Lebanese struggle to prepare for Christmas in the midst of the country’s worst economic crisis, Cecilia Baradhi could swear that never in her 70 years had she ever experienced a holiday season this dreadful.
Decorating her home – previously her parents’ – where she was born and raised in the Christian quarter by the fisherman’s port in Tyre, Baradhi set up the Christmas tree that had adorned the residence every year for 30 years.
“In the past when we used to prepare for Christmas, the family would get together to decorate the house and our street, and distribute sweets and food around the neighborhood,” she told The Daily Star.
This year, however, that tradition is beyond her. “What have you done to us,” she said, addressing the country’s leaders.
Lebanon is in the grips of the worst economic and social crisis the country has ever seen, with more than half of the population plunged into poverty as their purchasing power is reduced to naught due to the Lebanese pound’s severe devaluation. Meanwhile, indifferent to the plight of citizens, the country’s politicians continue to haggle over shares in the new Cabinet, as the day-to-day functions are handled by a caretaker government with limited powers.
“The sound of the church on Christmas Eve will warn and remind them of our hunger,” Baradhi said.
Rosette Katra echoed Baradhi’s sentiments, saying that with her family of six already rationing its spending, soaring prices had prevented them from buying anything for Christmas.
“In the past, before the pandemic and the economic crisis, we used to celebrate in restaurants. Today we say goodbye to those times. Even grilled meat is a thing of the past,” she said.
“We used to make a lot of sweets and distribute them to the neighbors, but this year we made them in very small quantities just for us so we can at least feel the Christmas spirit a bit,” she added.
And yet, despite the economic distress, the entire city of Tyre appeared determined to feel the Christmas spirit, with the entrance to every neighborhood in the city decorated with red flowers and lights, and a Christmas tree put up on very home.
Even the Tyre Municipality sought to kindle the spirit of Christmas, putting up a giant tree in Al-Kasam Square. Vendors selling toys and decorations could be seen everywhere, while clothing stores were busy decorating their windows for the holidays.
In the town of Shawaliq in Jezzine, the municipality erected a big Christmas tree at the entrance to the town in the hopes that its luminescence would momentarily hold the gloom of current days at bay.
“2020 was a hard year for everyone and we wanted to raise people’s spirits and especially the kids,” the head of Shawaliq Municipality George Antoine said in a speech during the event.
But while no amount of decoration can change the economic distress the Lebanese are experiencing this holiday season, the coronavirus pandemic has also had a severe impact on celebrations, particularly when it comes to children.
Although 8-year-old Christine, who was playing with her friends in the neighborhood, said she was excited to get new clothes for Christmas, and about the arrival of Santa Claus, the pandemic had already robbed her of simple joys. “We used to celebrate Christmas at school but this year we can’t because of coronavirus,” she explained.
Businesses, that usually thrive during the holiday season, were also hit, by both the pandemic and the crippling economic crisis.
Mohammad Matar, a clothing store owner in Sidon, told The Daily Star that while traffic in markets and shops in Sidon and Tyre was “acceptable,” it was a far cry from the hustle and bustle the town usually witnessed at this time of year.
He noted that although the lifting of the countrywide lockdown on Nov. 30 had had a positive impact on foot traffic, “there is a big problem with the prices of clothing. Whoever has relatives abroad who transfer them dollars, they can afford it. But those with limited income ask about the price of an item of clothing a thousand times and try to negotiate,” he said.
Matar said pricing of his merchandise presented a dilemma, because while on the one hand the dollar was trading at more than LL8,000, he was reluctant to raise prices in Lebanese pounds to account for the devaluation. “The price of everything is doubled now, but we also need to sell and not lose any customers,” he explained.
Husam Saab, a store owner in Sidon who sells decorations, said in previous years his establishment used to be stocked with new decorations and products during the Christmas season. This year, however, both merchandize and customers at his store were scarce.
“This year people are more worried about putting food on the table than decorating their homes,” he said.