The true meaning of Christmas in the Middle East

Centuries of conflicts that started with the biblical myths of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac culminate around this time of year

Octavia Nasr

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Christmas is nowhere a larger holy day than in the Middle East and for a good reason. Nazareth where Jesus and his Mother Mary hail from is in Palestine, or modern-day Israel, considered as an enemy and occupier by most Arabs. Bethlehem, site of the nativity is in the Occupied Palestinian West Bank, not accessible to most.

Centuries of conflicts that started with the biblical myths of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac culminate around this time of year. Even though the tales might be forgotten, their fingerprints remain visible. They date back to long before the political conflict stemming from the establishment of the state of Israel at the expense of the state of Palestine. Going back to the time of the emotional, religiously infused and much more lethal conflict of the children of Hagar versus those of Sarah: Arabs versus Jews and who can claim ownership of the land.

The Arabs, who became Christians and Muslims before they disintegrated into dysfunctional skeletons of the two religions, face today the largest identity and survival crisis of their history. This is due largely to the fall of autocracies, rise of Islamic fundamentalism and ongoing oppression of Christian minorities. The Jews also face an historic identity crisis (to be discussed in another article).

As the drama unfolds, remnants of the Middle East’s Christians face persecution in some places while Christmas trees get bigger and more ornate where they are still permitted. The intensity of the holidays is mirrored on social media where the faithful display their holiday spirit as if competing who has the brighter Christmas tree or larger nativity scene or who has more animals breathing warmth into baby Jesus who will soon be crucified then resurrected as the Christian tradition goes.

Underneath the commercial and the colorful pagan-rooted display of survival, resides the real faith. Thankfully, much of it remains true despite the politics, brutality, division and violent news chipping at it daily.

A crisis is not necessarily a bad thing. Just ask Jesus who, as the story goes, sacrificed himself to save all humanity. The Passion of Christ that starts at his birth is a lesson we have yet to understand and absorb fully. Reality on the ground shows that people would rather kill each other every day and fight over petty things instead.

Let us observe that through his birth, Jesus teaches tolerance, peace, forgiveness and modesty. May the challenges of this Christmas bring us all closer to the season’s true virtues!

This article was first published in al-Nahar on December 23, 2014.


Multi-award-winning journalist Octavia Nasr served as CNN’s senior editor of Middle Eastern affairs, and is regarded as one of the pioneers of the use of social media in traditional media. She moved to CNN in 1990, but was dismissed in 2010 after tweeting her sorrow at the death of Hezbollah’s Mohammed Fadlallah. Nasr now runs her own firm, Bridges Media Consulting, whose main aim is to help companies better leverage the use of social networks.

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