BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec. 24 (UPI) -- The people of Lebanon are keen not to break the tradition of celebrating Christmas despite a catastrophic year that plunged them into poverty and grief.
The glamorous Christmas decorations that once transformed the streets, shops and the facades of the buildings into a magical scene during the holiday season have scarcely appeared.
While many families have no heart to celebrate, others decorated their homes with their old Christmas trees and flickering lights in a shy attempt to dismiss an overwhelming feeling of sadness in the country.
"We just don't want to break the tradition," Elias Mitri, a 30-year-old graphic designer, said while having a drink with friends at the Internazionale pub in Beirut's Mar Mikhael area, which was devastated by the Aug. 4 explosion at the nearby Beirut port.
Like in the past years, the Mitris will organize a Christmas dinner that will be attended by all the members of their extended family, who a day before will undergo COVID-19 tests as a precaution.
"We want to break the sadness...at least we can try, otherwise it will break us more," Mitri told UPI.
'Another normal day'
Painful memories of the port explosion that killed more than 200 people and destroyed some 200,000 homes are still vivid. The acute economic crisis and skyrocketing inflation are making things even worse, leaving no room for celebration for many.
Ghada Aoun, a 46-year-old mother of three, is planning nothing for Christmas.
"It will be another normal day. I can't afford to buy anything for my kids, no toys, new clothes or even a Christmas dinner as we used to do," Aoun told UPI.
Her husband's monthly salary of 1.2 million Lebanese pounds (or $140 at the black market rate of 8,500 LL per U.S. dollar) is barely enough to cover necessities.
To survive, she stopped paying their apartment's rent and cancelled the satellite TV subscription, while restricted spending to food, school fees and, most importantly, securing an Internet connection so that her children continue their education online.
"If I want to prepare a Christmas dinner, it means that we won't be able to eat the whole month," Aoun told UPI.
In the absence of any government support, charities stepped in to lift the grim mood and assist those most affected.
Beit el Baraka has been helping families in deep financial distress since it established a free supermarket in February 2019, securing food for some 226,000 people in need. It has also offered medical and education support and rehabilitated 3,011 homes and 250 small shops destroyed by the port explosion.
For Christmas, Maya Ibrahimchah, founder and president of Beit el Baraka, said her charity decided to bring some life to the devastated, predominantly Christian neighborhood, decorating the streets and alleys with lights while a choir quietly sang Christmas carols.
"We are trying as much as possible to celebrate but with decency and dignity because many have lost their loved ones," Ibrahimchah told UPI.
Some 500 of the area's most vulnerable families will come to pick up a full Christmas dinner with a bottle of wine and gifts for their children.
"Every child will have a laptop, and that is very important to help them with their online education. They lost everything when their homes were destroyed," she said. "This is our way to celebrate Christmas this year."
In the Mar Mikhael street, some pubs and restaurants have reopened, luring back a faithful clientele. Many are Lebanese living aboard who returned to the country to spend the holidays with their families and show support and solidarity. Fresh lockdowns in France, Germany and the U.K., where they currently live, helped spur them to come back.
"We spent our best days in this street...It is a strange feeling to see shops still destroyed and others full of life," Serge Angelopoulos, who works in the banking sector in Paris, told UPI.
Like Ursula al Meer, a renewable energy engineer working in Germany, he wants to give a boost to the newly reopened restaurants and help revive this damaged area.
"There is a common feeling of sadness and hopelessness...no Christmas spirit," said al Meer, who asked her mother not to put up the Christmas tree at home this year as "it would have been too much."
"Beirut City of Life" was another initiative to bring life back to Mar Mikhael and the nearby Gemmayze neighborhoods, which were Beirut's top night-life attractions before the port blast.
Starting Dec. 7, concerts, exhibitions, a Christmas fair and wine festival were organized, while restaurants, cafes and hotels offered discounts to reactivate their businesses and make up for the losses they suffered.
"This means that we are not giving up and we are still hopeful," said Hoda Nehmeh, manager of the Internazionale pub.