It is the time of year when people are “supposed to feel fuzzy,” as a friend put it once. In the West, and increasingly all over the globe, festive signs are in full swing by the last week of December. Music is everywhere: Carols, hymns and songs, arranged and rearranged. Old and new, familiar tunes are meant to carry positive sentimental evocations.
Shops and their tempting seasonal goods create a sense of urgency to make shopping feel like a need rather than a means for fulfilling other needs. Colorful decorations pop up on city streets, town squares, trees, parks, buildings, houses and even light posts. And lights, lots of lights, are blinking and shimmering in every imaginable variety. It would be difficult not to notice that a special occasion is at hand.
Even though luminous colorfulness is meant to reflect and evoke a cheerful air, the sensory onslaught of festive stimuli brings feelings of sadness and resentment to many; light decorations get a special share of complaints. Perhaps this is especially the case in places that have witnessed loss; chief among them are conflict zones, such as Syria.
We would all like to hear that suffering has ended in the catastrophe-hit country, and even though active combat is in limited areas, senses of loss and fear continue on every street in the country, including those glittering with lights.
For the second year in a row, Syrian cities are marking the lighting of giant Christmas trees in major squares. Damascus has chosen Sahat Al-Abbasiyyin, the Square of the Abbasids. Despite the historic significance of its name, the square was until recently one of the least interesting spaces in the capital. Essentially a huge roundabout, it melts multiple large streets that connect the urban space with intercity highways and former villages that are now an extension of its neighborhoods.
Over the last couple of decades, there have been attempts to beautify the giant swirl of lanes where trucks, busses and cars compete for exits, marking the city’s entrance from its surrounding rural areas and the people and goods that flock through it daily. To ease traffic flow, the late 1980s-style circular gardens centering around a water fountain were replaced by a knot of intersecting streets and tunnels.
Over the weekend, a 14-tier structure of lights erected in Abbasiyyin Square was switched on. Topped by a multidirectional, bright shape of a star, this year’s Christmas tree was lit in a festival which hundreds reportedly attended. The occasion was a reminder of last year’s, when “the tallest tree in Syria” was plugged in, signalling the end of hostilities and the start of celebrations in the capital.
The political significance of lighting a Christmas tree in 2018, which looked more like a rapidly put-together string of lights than the current season’s well-designed 20-meter high structure, fell bitterly on large numbers of Syrians.
While before the war occasional city-sponsored tree lightings took place, the choice of Abbasiyyin Square to mark the end of fighting in Damascus is a symbolic one. Because of its proximity to areas that were taken over by armed factions of the opposition early on in the Syrian saga, the area was so fiercely contested that the square and its contour became known as places of death.
The political significance of lighting a Christmas tree in 2018, which looked more like a rapidly put-together string of lights than the current season’s well-designed 20-meter high structure, fell bitterly on large numbers of Syrians. They perceived the festive do as disrespectful to fellow citizens and the many victims of war. The disagreement had apparent religious lines, but those were by no means clear, especially as they marked perceived winners and losers in the major battles that raged outside Damascus in preceding months. To be sure, people under pressure have the right to be joyful, but when warring sides include compatriots, it is important to remember that loss spares no one.
This year, while little has changed about the fact that the lighting festivities taking place in Damascus and Aleppo are contemporaneous with deadly bombardment in other parts of the country, some hope appears to have made its way onto attending faces.
A team of young volunteers helped run the event this year. Their name, Sabro, essentially means hope. The Syriac term appeared on their uniform vests, also in Arabic and Latin transliteration. The rather obscure word makes multiple appearances in the weekly liturgy of the Syriac church. Most appropriate to mention for the occasion is that it comes from the phrase a celestial choir chanted to shepherds one night outside Bethlehem. The shepherds were guarding their flock at night, according to the biblical story, when an angel and a host of his friends appeared to tell them that a special child was born.
“Glory to God in the highest [heaven], and on earth peace, good will to [people],” became one of the most widely known texts of Christianity. “Gloria in excelsis deo” has been set to countless types of music and sung by thousands of generations of choirs through the ages. Harkening back to it in Damascus today, as the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch told attendees, is meant to encourage sabro, rather than suffering, in people’s lives.
No religion-based simplification of the war that has devastated Syria for the best part of a decade is accurate. When it comes to social connections and cultural habits, confessional lines are of a different sort of value, and it is not necessarily a negative one.
As a country that is yet to attend to its deep wounds repeats mantras of fraternal togetherness, the shimmering lights on its festive garb reveal the very divisions it tries to hide. Yet, just as the lines of religious difference are never far below the surface, the true light of Christmas shines from the consolation its good news brings: That hope and good are given to people, so long as there is a God to be glorified in heavens.
That, at least, is one thing Syria’s religions are less likely to disagree about this week.
Tala Jarjour is author of Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo. She is Visiting Research Fellow at King's College London, and Associate Fellow of the Yale College.