A muted Christmas in Gaza

Holiday cheer is tough to come by after this summer’s brutal war, which has left Gazans struggling to recover.

Elaine al-Salfiti was denied permission to go to Bethlehem for Christmas [Hosam Salem/Al Jazeera]

Gaza City – Christmas is hidden upstairs at the Toy Toy shop in the core of Gaza City.

Visitors entering the small, unassuming store must ascend a side staircase before stumbling upon a room full of Christmas goods – rows of red and green candles, shelves adorned with grinning elf dolls, a floor covered in shiny green wrapping paper.

A lone employee, 24-year-old Hussam Abu Shaban, wraps snow-white garlands around a plastic tree and jokingly refers to himself as Gaza’s Santa.

But in a city that has barely started to recover from a crushing summer war, this is no ordinary Christmas.

Indeed, for many Christian residents of the besieged Gaza Strip, there is little to celebrate this holiday season.

“This Christmas is not like last year,” Shaban tells Al Jazeera. “Most Christians just take a small tree for the kids. They’ve lost a lot of family members, some from the war, some not.”

OPINION: What I saw in Gaza

Wreckage from Israel’s 51-day assault on Gaza, which killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and displaced hundreds of thousands more, remains visible everywhere in the densely populated coastal enclave.

Buildings demolished by air strikes still lie in jarring heaps of rubble, unfixed nearly four months after the bombs stopped falling.

Driving through the streets of Gaza on Christmas Eve, it is tough to spot many signs at all of the holiday season.

A few storefronts are festooned with pine boughs and shiny ornaments. But residents – even those who religiously celebrate the holiday – are not putting Christmas on display.

Christmas is inevitably coming with its decoration, its finery and its celebrations, but our inner souls are still affected, in all respects, by the devastating effects of war.

by - Nahed al-Dabbagh, Gaza resident

“There were a lot of Christians killed in this war. Christian homes were destroyed,” Nabeel al-Salfiti, 62, tells Al Jazeera. “Every year it’s been tougher [to celebrate].”

Christmas was already a humble celebration in Gaza. The vast majority of the strip’s 1.8 million residents are Muslim, with less than one percent identifying as Christian. And many of those are Orthodox, meaning they celebrate Christmas on January 7 rather than December 25.

Shaban describes Christmas as a “uniting” force, noting many of the decorations that Toy Toy sells are purchased by Muslims.

Even though the festive spirit has been more lacklustre this year than in ones previous, “we all like the decorations of Christmas”.

But Salfiti, whose home brims with holiday cheer on the inside, says he made a conscious decision to keep Christmas out of public view this year. “This is inside the house,” he explains, adjusting his thick blue corduroy jacket as he gestures around his living room.

Power cuts have left his home temporarily without electricity, but a single strip of battery-powered lights casts a glow over red Christmas place mats with gold tassels, a Santa-themed napkin holder, glittering red candles and, in one corner, the family Christmas tree. “We don’t show it outside in such circumstances after the war.”

His daughter, Elaine al-Salfiti, 18, wanted to go to Bethlehem with her mother this year to celebrate Christmas in the heart of the Holy Land.

But Salfiti, clad in a sweater emblazoned with white snowflakes and reindeer, explains that her mother will be going alone, because she cannot obtain the necessary travel permissions.

“It’s very depressing, because everyone I know travels to celebrate and I’m left alone,” she tells Al Jazeera. The absence of Christmas in much of Gaza is not lost on her, either: “Here we feel isolated. There’s so much missing. It’s not pleasant, like before.”

Many other Christians in Gaza say they do not wish to discuss Christmas publicly, concerned that speaking to the media could get them in trouble and cause difficulties with obtaining permits to go to Bethlehem – especially amid increasingly brittle relations with Israel.

“Christmas is inevitably coming with its decoration, its finery and its celebrations, but our inner souls are still affected, in all respects, by the devastating effects of war,” Nahed al-Dabbagh, 25, tells Al Jazeera after attending Christmas Eve ceremonies at the Latin Church in central Gaza City.

“We hope that the next Christmas will be a feast of goodness and peace on the Palestinian people.”

With a report from Walaa Ghussein

Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole 

Source: Al Jazeera