By Nabil Habibi
Dad comes home with a big box. The four of us children, two girls and two boys, stare with curiosity. Mom is grinning. Dad opens the box. It is a Christmas tree! In almost any other Christian house in the Middle East, and indeed many Muslim ones, this would be a normal event that takes place at the end of every November. But it was not something normal for us.
We grew up in an ultra-conservative church in Beirut. All “worldly” signs were strictly forbidden. Television? The media of the devil. Music? The tunes of the devil. Christmas celebrations? The celebration of Satan himself. Because of this we grew up without Christmas decorations, and definitely without a Christmas tree.
Thankfully, in my early teen years, my family moved into a different church tradition. We discovered the joy of Christmas festivities. We did buy a Christmas tree after all (most people get a plastic one in this part of the world). As I reflect on the Christmas season we recently went through, and on my family’s evolution of holiday celebration, I see that a struggle over symbols is very much a staple of Christianity in the Middle East.
Streets and towns with a Christian majority in Lebanon are full of Christian symbols: statues, crosses, and icons. During the holidays, Christian areas make sure to the light the streets with Christmas decorations. And every Christian town must have a Christmas tree in the center or entrance of the town.
Indeed, in many of the Arab countries with a government-approved Christian presence, the lighting of the Christmas tree is an “event” attended by the media and local dignitaries. (This is one such example from Jordan). For Christian communities, the public lighting of the Christmas tree is a sign that they have the right to exist in a Muslim-majority country. For the Muslim community, permitting this Christmas tree to be lighted is a sign of their tolerance and respect of minority existence. But this can be a point of contention between Muslims.
During this past Christmas, Mohammad Salah, the Egyptian Muslim footballer for Liverpool FC, and perhaps the most famous Muslim sports figure on the planet, tweeted a family picture in front of a Christmas tree. Thousands of Muslims replied in anger. They argued that Muslims should not celebrate Christmas. Thousands of others tweeted with encouragement and approval. Sometimes the responses can be more heated.
A few days before Christmas unknown arsonists burned a Christmas tree in Dinniyeh, a Muslim town in the north of Lebanon. (The Lebanese army moved quickly to arrest suspects. Such trivial incidents can spiral into armed sectarian conflict in Lebanon.) The town residents had wanted to project an image of tolerance from a Lebanese area that is usually associated with Islamic extremism. Some of the residents had other ideas.
Be it Salah’s picture, the Dinniyeh burning, churches lighting Christmas trees in Muslim countries, or my own Christmas struggles with fundamentalism, Christmas trees are an apt reminder that religion is deeply symbolic. Religion relies on material symbols to speak of metaphysical realities. We use bread, wine, crosses, bells, colors, and other symbols in our liturgy – even non-liturgical churches have verses, a raised pulpit, a cross, and other such symbols in their sanctuary.
Arab Christians do not only use symbols to speak theology, but they also rely on symbols to establish their presence. Our very church buildings proclaim our existence. The fact that we can put up Christmas trees in the public arena testifies to the fact that we retain some degree of political and social power in a largely Muslim area.
Of course, a myriad New Testament passages come to mind here. Foremost among them is Jesus’ admonition to his disciples in Matthew 5 to let their good works shine so people will glorify the Father. Jesus says something similar in John 13, whereby he instructs his disciples to be known by their love. This is an overarching theme in the New Testament and the life of the early church. Our identity, our presence as a minority group in a largely non-Christian society, should be based on our Kingdom values rather than Christmas trees and crosses. Our main, and perhaps our only, stake to claim is that of a loving and suffering community.
But as I write these words, I think of the thousands of Lebanese Christians who have died in various wars to defend the “Christian presence” in Lebanon. I think of the hundreds of thousands of Arab Christians who have had to pay mind-boggling fees, establish political relations, and employ every trick in their book to get a government agreement to build a church building.
Even if I think that theologically and biblically such political and military efforts are meaningless, and even if I can’t in good conscience condone Arab Christian focus on keeping our “presence,” I can’t miss the fact that I sit here in Lebanon publicly writing a Christian blog for a Christian institution partly because of such military and political efforts.
In all honesty, I would not feel sad if next Christmas governments across the Arab world banned Christmas trees. I would not feel discouraged if the burning of Christmas trees became the norm. I would be okay with Mohammad Salah choosing not to pose in front of a Christmas tree. In more than one way, I think it would be very healthy for us to experience the reality once again of being an oppressed and persecuted minority in largely antagonistic society. Was that not the experience of the early church? Isn’t that the experience of our brothers and sisters in underground churches across the Arab world and beyond?
My wife and I put up a Christmas tree in our house every year. Our toddler loves it. Our baby will grow to love it. I love it! Indeed, I love all Christian symbols. They bring a richness to our faith. But more than being surrounded by Christian objects, my wish for my sons is that they experience a vibrant Christian community – a place where the main trait that challenges wider society is love: foot-washing self-sacrificing enemy-blessing hate-defying cross-carrying love!
When Nabil is not lecturing in New Testament Studies at ABTS he is busy engaging in political advocacy, serving the youth at his church, and hanging out with his super cute toddler and baby.