Image 1 of 8: Lebanon: while the year has not been altogether easy with car-bombings, kidnappings, and the like, twas a season to be jolly for the incorrigible drinkers of Lebanon, even if they could no longer puff cigars in indoor eateries. With the era of toy soldiers and trains over, parents in the Land of the Cedars gave the kiddies iPads this year.
Image 1 of 8: Christmas always has a special feel in the Holy Land. This year, Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liebermann decided to dress up like Santa Claus and gave the Palestinians a gift they'll always remember: thousands more angry, armed and rude neighbors - or, settlers. The lack of Palestinian Christmas spirit at this announcement left Israelis baffled.
Image 1 of 8: Despite a mass exodus of Christians from Iraq in recent years, Erbil in the Kurdistan region has transformed into a flurry of festive decorations, more Santa’s grotto than Mesopotamian wasteland ruled by mountain-dwelling tribal overlords.
Image 1 of 8: The Islamic Republic of Iran, is, as the name would suggest, a majority Muslim nation, but a native Christian community, mostly from a centuries-old Armenian presence, number just over 100,000. Around fifty per cent of Christians live in Tehran, where Catholic Armenian churches held traditional masses to celebrate the birth of Jesus this year.
Image 1 of 8: It’s fair to say Xmas was all but cancelled in Syria for 2012 and at the very least not accompanied by the usual merry-making because of the conflict. Protesters in Kafr Nabl held aloft a banner that read: “Syria, the land where Assad killed Santa”. Other concessions were dropped decorations, and backdrops of burning cars to singing choirs.
Image 1 of 8: The Gulf region with all its expat communities gave its usual capitalist nod to the season of good cheer and even better bargains. Majority Muslim and majority sun-drenched UAE was more than happy to go winter-white and give its decadent version of Santa grottos and winter-wonderland simulations of Lapland.
Image 1 of 8: Egypt's first Islamist Xmas may be less Merry more 'Morsi'. With the Coptic Orthodox Christmas not quite upon us, it remains to be seen how much of a sober affair it will be in the wake of a new politically Islamicised democratic Egypt. Religion has already given way to politics, as the referendum verdict came through on Western Christmas day.
Image 1 of 8: While Jordan remains majority-Muslim, Xmas is never kept at bay in the Kingdom. Just west of Amman is one of the country’s Christian strongholds, Fuhais, which is replete with Christmas. Then again, no Amman mall is without its share of Xmas kitch. Madaba and Salt contain a lot of Jordan's Christian make-up too, and not shy of their proud trees.
Christmas Day celebrations in the Middle East are a reminder that the region is home to some of Christianity’s oldest denominations, including speakers of the language of Jesus, Aramaic. A time to feast with family and loved ones, it is also a time of reflection during political crises and turmoil. Millions of Arab Christians have been displaced or fled the region because of wars and internal strife.
It has not been an easy year for many Christians in the region, and a muted Yuletide was often the order of the year. The ongoing conflict in Syria has led to tensions between the country’s many sects. For all intents and purposes, Christmas for Syria's faithful was either skipped, or subdued to a barely audible level of seasonal cheer. While other Arab nations went about business as usual managing to jingle through another Xmas, there was a sense that there had been better festivities in years past. From neighboring Lebanon to an Egypt striving to discover what democracy really meant for the marginalized Copts, Christians carried on cautiously with curtailed Christmas ceremonies and curbed church choirs.
Christians more widely have come under fire in recent years, leading one research group to report the ongoing exodus could mean the end of Christian communities in the Abrahamic Holy Lands.
Christmas is observed by an estimated 21 million Arab Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. Increasingly, non-Christians are joining in the festivities and many Muslims now mark the day in some fashion. While Western Christianity celebrates on December 25 - exactly nine months after the Easter holiday marking Christ’s birth - about 200 million Orthodox Christians, including in Egypt, hold festivities on January 7. The Orthodox Church still uses the Julian Calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used by most other churches.
While many of the ancient traditions surrounding Christmas have disappeared over the years, some still remain. But increasingly Western habits such as the decoration of trees are combined with local twists, as elves eat falafel or Santa Claus dons a fez.
A seaonal flavor of Christmas, Arab and Middle East-style follows.
Share your thoughts! Did you celebrate Christmas this year? Does 2013 hold much hope for Christians across the region? How do you feel about the sometimes tacky malls and their giant festive decorations? Do let us know!