Christmas in Beirut has at least one thing in common with the rest of the year in the bustling Lebanese capital: it is serious business. The rushing crowds, the colorful window displays, the canned carols blaring from loudspeakers, the tinsel and lights hanging above the principal shopping streets lend much of the same commercial atmosphere that Americans today have come to expect—and sometimes deplore—of the year's most brisk sales season.
Also, since the ecclesiastical calendars of the western and eastern churches do not coincide, Beirut merchants enjoy two Christmas shopping rushes. And when the lunar cycle causes a major Muslim holiday to fall during the same period—as it has during the past two years—the visions of sugar plums are positively dazzling.
The religious and sentimental importance of Christmas in the Middle East has traditionally taken third place to Easter and New Year's among the area's millions of Christians. But as a commercial event Christmas penetrates the .entire economic structure.
Since Beirut merchants have never, heard of Thanksgiving Day they don't mix pilgrims with Santa Clauses. Nevertheless, by December workmen begin stringing lights and decorations along the main streets in the modern section and in the suqs in the old section. Last year even the famous old Suq Tawile (the "Long Bazaar") surrendered to the spirit of Christmas. It was closed to automobile traffic and decorated with plants and monumental sculpture.
Elsewhere, sidewalks in front of flower shops sprout giant poinsettias, holly and mistletoe, and vacant lots bristle with Christmas trees, some shipped from Italy or Scandinavia, a few ruthlessly—and illegally—cut from reforested mountain areas in Lebanon itself. Along the main streets, pushcart vendors pile inflated Santa balloons from Hong Kong onto overloaded carts, and candy stores fill windows with boxes of chocolates wrapped in red and silver. In record shops an Arabic version of "Silent Night" by the popular folk singer Fairouz, stands side by side with the re-issue of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas." A theater called the Embassy schedules a Walt Disney Festival. Middle East Airlines, cashing in on its normal trademark—the Cedars of Lebanon—distributes nursery-raised cedar seedlings to passengers who leave Lebanon on Christmas day.
Even the Christmas card ritual has caught on in Beirut. Today Muslims as well as Christians often send Christmas cards to friends. But although large selections of European and American cards are on sale, the biggest sellers seem to be those issued by groups such as UNICEF, the Women's Auxiliary of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the Friends of Jerusalem Society. Last year even the Palestinian commando organization al-Fateh climbed on the card bandwagon.
As Christmas draws near, the major Beirut newspapers and local magazines publish color supplements heavy with ads for Christmas and New Year's galas at every club and restaurant in town. Last year one paper printed a French translation of Art Buchwald on the Wall Street takeover of "Pere Noel's" operations at "Le Pole Nord." The English-language Daily Star ran the classic New York Sun editorial of 1897, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," and the French-language daily, L'Orient dropped Pere Noel from an Army helicopter into a sports stadium to the roaring approval of some 45,000 Lebanese children, 40 of whom won a three-day air trip to Paris.
To many, Beirut's extravagant glitter contrasts badly with unhappy conditions in poor villages and refugee camps and with the ancient and holy celebrations taking place in Bethlehem, hardly 150 air-miles away. Yet Beirut is not all glitter. University choirs put on traditional works like "Amahl and the Night Visitors" and Handel's "Messiah." Schools present Christmas pageants. Lebanon's Catholic President and Muslim Prime Minister attend a special Mass. Families draw together in fellowship and prayer. And in all fairness to Beirut it must be mentioned that as crowds came thronging out of one bright movie theater last Christmas Eve, they were engulfed in an even greater crowd of teen-agers spilling down the steps from the Franciscan Chapel where they had attended, in record numbers, a midnight Jazz-Mass.