Hundreds of people cheered and danced at the lighting of a huge Christmas tree in Byblos, north of Beirut, on Tuesday in a rare show of public jubilation despite the economic meltdown.
The tourist city is renowned for extravagant holiday celebrations but could not afford a Christmas tree last year because of the Covid-19 pandemic and a continuing economic crisis.
The lighting of the tree and the launch of small Christmas markets around the country gives residents room for hope and celebration during a difficult time.
“Our world was dark and when we saw those lights turn on, it warmed our hearts,” Byblos resident Sabah Tarabey said, her gaze fixed on the Christmas decorations in the market facing the tree.
The weary-eyed widow and mother of four said she has found it difficult to survive in the cash-strapped country.
Nearly 80 per cent of Lebanese have become poor since the onset of an economic meltdown in late 2019, largely caused by decades of corruption and mismanagement.
“We are suffering. People live in poverty,” Ms Tarabey said.
Less than an hour from the capital, Byblos had long been a getaway for Beirutis during the holidays. But the double effects of the pandemic and economic meltdown have mostly kept tourists at bay.
Teamwork brought the tree back to Byblos
The head of Byblos municipality, Wissam Zaarour, says the private sector, Byblos traders and the municipality worked together to bring the tree back and keep it alight.
“People defied health, economic and political concerns to celebrate because they just need to breathe,” Mr Zaarour told The National after the event.
Byblos residents elbowed one another to get closer to the famed tree in the dimly lit town square.
The state electricity provider can only grant up to three hours of power a day, leaving most of the country in darkness or forced to rely on private generators.
“We are not going to allow the lack of electricity or private generators or fuel to dim the light of Christmas in our faces,” Mr Zaarour told a silent crowd.
He was flanked by Tourism Minister Walid Nassar and Byblos parliamentarian Ziad Hawat, who took turns to speak despite a brief interruption caused by a power cut.
In a country that largely relies on services for revenue, the financial collapse hit tourist coastal cities hard.
Marie-Rose Risk, a mother of three, says that this year’s celebrations helped to keep up morale despite economic hardships.
“Celebrations give us hope, fend off sadness about the current situation,” Ms Risk said. “Streets were totally empty last year. This year, celebrations brought it back to life."