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Ho-ho-ho in Damascus


Or: An entirely unreligious look at Christmas


A peacekeeper, a businessman and an ecologist meet in Damascus and talk about the meaning of Christmas. To get them started, I remember a poll, done many years ago by a radio station somewhere in South America among diplomats from faraway countries, asking their wishes for Christmas. The then-Soviet representative answered, he wished freedom to all oppressed workers, the American wished wealth to all people, the German wished peace upon all nations and the British wished a box of English candy.

I also remember how, during Christmas 1993, I visited a school in a Muslim village in South Lebanon and found, to my utmost amazement, that they had two richly decorated Christmals trees and that the children had received Christmas gifts (150 whistles used in “concerto”, making more noise than some of the incidents OGL* is there to report).

What has the first to do with the second, and the second with Damascus? Nothing, and a lot. Consider this: Why are fur-coated Santa Clauses hopping in front of Australian and South African supermarkets, sweating buckets in the December heat, why ist “Silent Night” a hit in Egypt, and why do even grim-faced UNMOs** get sentimental the closer this feast of feasts gets (especially marines, paratroopers and special forces grunts)? And more: even those, to whom the name Santa Clause does not ring a bell, do not escape the force of the feast. Which brings us back to Damascus: of course there is Christmas, and of course not only in Christian homes. It is, above all, in churches and shops.

This is by no means a coincidence. By now the reader asks: You mention the church, but where is the priest? I answer: In the church. In other words: This is an unreligious look at Christmas, because its religious meaning is the center of the feast and more than clear. This is a look at the two strong messages of Christmas that have nothing to do with religion, but a lot with its success.

Returning to those sweating Australian Santa Clauses, we must ask why Christmas, of all religious feasts of all religions, is such a worldwide success, passing regional, religious and cultural boundaries almost as if they did not exist? The answer is simple: Peace and business. These two messages of Christmas touch two of the strongest human desires: the one for peace and the one for prosperity. Now remember that this is the age of peace- and profit-making and it will soon become clear why this century is such an ideal breeding ground for Santa Clauses. Christmas has become a symbol for man’s desire for peace, but also the trigger for the biggest shopping spree of the year.

And this is exactly where we return to the Middle East, a traditional breeding ground for warriors and businessmen: The P-word is whispered all over the place, occasionally muted by a bomb or clouded by tear gas, but let there be no mistake: The notion that peace is a highly idealistic and THEREFORE unsuccessful endeavour is as untrue as the notion that “Underemployed” and “Neurotic” are the real words behind the letters UN.

So far, so ho, but what is the ecologist doing in the discussion? I have no idea. He ist just there, he wants to talk, he is, by the way, a she, and she is frustrated, because she has been too successful: EVERYBODY is an ecologist nowadays (Yeah, let’s get into our cars and see some pure nature!), but the world is slowly turning into a dump. Ho-ho-ho.

On the horizon appears the next big battle, the next big wish for Christmas: The one for peace with nature, and this is the only aspect that makes those plastic Christmas trees (so popular in Damascus, by the way) if not dear, acceptable to me. Remember the huge reforestation program Syria and other nations in the area have initiated, the prefix “re” re-minding us that forrests used to be around in much of the Mediterranean region, and that the first big civilizations focused much of their energy on chopping down enemies and trees, leaving behind barren land and the question for head-scratching visitors today, how, without any LSD available, anyone could have even dreamed of inventing civilization in such dusty places.

To end this Dasmascene look at Christmas, another little episode from Lebanon. It is actually more a hidden message for those Santa-Claustrophobics who volunteer for Xmas duty in order to escape the force of the feast. Ha-ha-ha. I remember Christmas Eve on OP Mar*** in 1993, and apart from a more sumptuous meal than usual nothing particularly Santa-Claustic had been planned. Then, all of a sudden and one by one, the hardened peace-warriors around me started uncovering hitherto hidden gifts for their OP mates. It was the most baffling ambush of generosity and friendship I have ever run into, the sole itch caused by one small but significant detail: I was the only one with empty hands, and till today I wish I could have vanished from the surface of the earth like the barman of ISMAC house**** when I want to buy a drink.

Which, finally, brings me back to Damascus, or rather: To its bazaar. Ho-ho-ho, says the vendor. But he has not the last word. The last word has (and let a non-practicing agnostic emphasize this) God: Salaam, Shalom, Peace!



* Observer Group Lebanon

** United Nations Military Observer

*** One of five observation posts OGL maintained in the then “Israeli Controlled Area” (a.k.a. “Security Zone) of Southern Lebanon

**** The UN-observers central offices and meeting place in Damascus