In cold December, gift shops in the beleaguered Gaza Strip are usually overwhelmed with Christmas decorations. Numerous Santa toys and red hats with fluffy rims awaiting buyers, Christmas bells in different shapes and colors huddling around artificial pale-green trees with 300-shekel price tags covered in dust. Inside, colorful Christmas candy, lollipops and Quality Street chocolates fill shelves that extends to the cashier desk, where young salesmen greet visitors with a hopeful smile.
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But the Christmas spirit has a hard time competing with the lifelessness of one of the world’s unluckiest places to live, not least as a Christian: The Gaza Strip.
In the old days, Christmas was celebrated with remarkable gusto in the city center, Al-Jundi Al-Majhool. A huge decorate and lit-up tree, parades by the Greek Orthodox Scouts, numerous young people dressed as Santa, some of whom visited patients in the hospitals to present them with bouquets of flowers. The mayor of Gaza City and other prominent officials were always present, and the atmosphere was truly festive.
As despair has slowly infiltrated so many aspects of life in Gaza, festive occasions are now ruins of their former selves. It's no longer possible nor appropriate to produce such large-scale celebrations. Christmas has became a small-scale affair, conducted quietly in minor venues.
The Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius is one of those few places where Christmas will still be celebrated. It is the spiritual home and place of worship for 70% of Gaza’s Christians, an enchanting thousand-year old arcaded church adorned with elaborate drawings covering vividly blue walls. A stained-glass window with the message: "This is My blood," old chandeliers. It used to offer an window into an ancient beauty and spirit in Gaza City's old town, one that attracted many tourists.
That was before Gaza was sealed behind bars and walls.
Eleven years ago, when the Israeli blockade started and Hamas took control, 3,000 Christians were living in Gaza. Now, less than a thousand are left, and those that remain constantly have to weigh up the price of remaining in their homeland, or going into exile, as most Palestinian Christians have had to do. Today, 500,000 Palestinian Christians live in Chile alone.
Perhaps this year, a little girl is grabbing her mother’s dress, wondering why there isn’t much candy and why other girls aren’t dressed in new clothes as Christmas draws closer. Perhaps her mother is checking people’s faces to see whom else has snapped under Gaza’s unspeakable pressure and is planning to leave.
Those who remain know there's not much chance of the Christmas spirit coming into their homes. Santa won't be sipping from the milk their children prepare for him, there won't be many presents. For another year, "security reasons" will block his entry into Gaza.
Gazan Christians have one exceptional 'right', differentiating them from other Palestinians: They are allowed to petition the Israeli authorities to visit family in the West Bank, but only if they're younger than 16 or older than 35.
Each year, around 800 Christians from Gaza apply. Those whose exit passes are refused have no recourse: the reason given is always "security concerns", unexplained, unstated and untrue.
Petitions take 45 days to be processed, and every minute seems a lifetime when you’re sitting inside a cage, paranoid about what reasons might be used against you. The permissions seem to be given without rhyme or reason; sometimes, a husband is given entry permit but not his wife or vice versa.
And if relatives in the West Bank, or abroad, wanted to post their Gaza relatives a festive parcel in lieu of a visit - Israel allows only letter mail to Gaza at the moment.
Despite the grim sense of siege, Gaza's Christians will still worship at Christmas in churches crowded also with curious young Muslims, and the intrusive presence of Hamas leaders who will insist on photo-ops to prove how they respect communal harmony and respect for minorities. At least for those few hours.
Still, nothing deters Gazans from seeking hope in the darkest times. For New Year's Eve, young men and women, Muslims and Christians, still determinedly celebrate on Gaza’s darkened streets, armed with flashlights and red Santa hats, singing and launching fireworks, attemptig to put a year of disappointments behind them, and praying for a year of change, life and peace.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was formerly the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2