“We put the golden bells and then we start putting the red and green balls, and the rest of the decorations, because everything symbolizes a certain event,” Umm Hanna tells me during a long conversation around the Christmas tree amid the celebration rituals.
Umm Hanna (Mother of Hanna, a pseudonym) is in her fifties. She wears a cross pendant around her wrinkled neck, and has been living in the neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan in West Gaza with her family for more than 30 years.
Like most Christians who remain in Gaza, she is getting ready for the holidays, making sweet treats and shopping for presents and whatever Christmas tree decorations the local stores were able to get through the border crossings.
While Gaza’s Orthodox Christians hold their rituals in the Church of Saint Porphyrios, the Catholics hold theirs in the Holy Family Church, one of the oldest historical sites in Gaza.
Followers of Western Christian sects (Catholics) celebrate on Christmas Eve and Tuesday, while Eastern sects (Orthodox) will celebrate on the evening of January 6 and the day after.
Umm Hanna explains to Asia Times the celebration rituals this year: “We decorate the big Christmas tree in the Church of Saint Porphyrios, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the scouts and artists get ready for their performances. We also prepare the church to receive the people coming on the night of the 24th to pray and recite the hymns of Jesus.”
The Church of Saint Porphyrios is located in the heart of a majority-Muslim neighborhood in Gaza. Next to it is the Mosque of Kateb al-Welaya and a home for the elderly and special needs children who are tended to by the nuns of the church, in an image of coexistence that Umm Hanna affirms: “All of my neighbors are Muslim, I love them a lot and they love us. We visit each other on all occasions, but despite this loving relationship between us, our happiness will not be complete until there is peace and safety all over Palestine.”
Umm Hanna was born in Bethlehem and moved to Gaza with her husband in better times.
There are economically and socially prominent Christian families in Gaza that have historically prospered in the trades of gold, real estate and petroleum, like the families of Ghattas, Ayyad, Khoury and Tarzy.
More than half of Gazans are living in poverty despite humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. An Israeli blockade of the Gaza coastline, airspace, and land crossings has been in place now for more than a decade. The sole Egyptian border crossing with Gaza is also tightly controlled, with rare, restricted openings for some two million inhabitants.
For 20 years, Umm Hanna repeatedly tried to visit her family in the West Bank and celebrate Christmas in the Church of the Nativity. However, the constantly closed crossings and Israeli restrictions on travel permits have prevented that. Her relatives have not been able to visit her in Gaza for the same reasons.
In the years since Israel imposed a strict blockade on the Gaza Strip, the number of Christians in Gaza has been dwindling.
In the years since Israel imposed a strict blockade on the Gaza Strip, the number of Christians in Gaza has been dwindling
“Recently, the number of people showing up to prayers in church has decreased, because a lot of our relatives left Gaza, and I don’t think they will return. The young people don’t have job opportunities and the living conditions are hard.”
Kamel Ayad, the public pelations official for the Orthodox Church, told Asia Times: “Gaza’s Christians are always trying to obtain travel permits to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem. Israeli occupation authorities issue 900 permits, but very rarely grant permits to whole families, with security pretexts or because of numbers restrictions.”
Ayad says that Muslims and Christians share the same suffering, as the Israeli authorities restrict the permits to individuals under 16 or over 35 regardless of religion. The rare permits issued to travel between Gaza and the West Bank are mostly for medical cases, merchants, and foreigners.
Ayad says that despite the security restrictions, Gaza’s some 1,200 Christians have been holding their Christmas festivities.
The holiday comes after a difficult year for Gaza. Months of border protests aimed at shaking up the status quo and calling for an end to the siege were met with bullets by the Israeli military. Dozens of protesters were killed and thousands wounded.
The situation has calmed after a ceasefire was brokered between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas, but the grinding blockade and underlying causes remain much the same.
Christmas, for this small community, is a time to focus on whatever joy they can find. For Ayad, “The images of decorations on Christmas trees, Santa Claus dolls and children gifts have been very refreshing.”
Translated by Heba Afify