I was on my way to enter my house when a neighbour stopped me and pointed to my Christmas tree that was visible from the window, and said: “your Christmas tree is offensive to me and my family”. His tone suggested that I should take it down. I was taken back by his comment and did not know what to answer. It was the first time I had ever heard such a thing. Since when was my Christmas tree offensive? And on what grounds can he tell me what I can and cannot put in my own house or how I should observe my religious tradition?
This was the conversation between myself, a Palestinian Christian living in the city of Jerusalem and my fellow Orthodox Jewish neighbour. The point here is not to suggest that all Israeli Jews are hostile to Christianity or decorated trees, for at the same Christmas season, I was asked by teachers to introduce the Christmas holiday in a Jewish-Israeli school my sons attended. Nevertheless, as a minority living in Palestine/Israel, these are often the encounters I have with the other two majority groups, Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews.
These types of encounters encourage me to rethink what the Christmas holiday means to me as a Palestinian Christian living in the ‘Holy Land’, and how my fellow neighbours understand it as well. For us Christians in the Middle East, Christmas was always shadowed by Easter. Even in Arabic we call Easter the Big Holiday and Christmas the Little Holiday (عيد الكبير وعيد الصغير). Likewise, theologically speaking, Easter always meant more sense to us and a reason for rejoicing. The crucifixion, burial and resurrection always were central to our Palestinian Christian identity. Especially as I grow up in the Greek Orthodox Church that my forefathers built.
I remember as a little boy receiving a package full of Christmas decorations from relatives that had immigrated to the UK. This was something completely new for us in the old Palestinian city of Lydda, for we had never decorated our home for such an occasion. The decorations were such a new element in our Christmas celebration that friends and family came from all around the city to see what we had put up in our home. This was only the beginning of the strong western influence on how we celebrate Christmas in the land Christ grew up in.
As Christmas became such a huge phenomenon in the West and in popular culture, Jews and Muslims would always come to me asking questions about what this holiday meant and how I celebrated it. Often, my fellow Muslim neighbours would even wear Christmas hats and come to see the celebrations in Nazareth and Bethlehem. As Jesus was also a prophet in Islam, some more secular orientated Muslims would also join in the celebrations.
All of this attention from my Jewish and Muslim neighbours, both positive and negative, forced me to explore and study the Christmas story more closely. To my surprise, the Christmas message was far more powerful and relevant to the situation in Palestine/Israel than I thought. It took me time to realise its significance and wonder. While the Christmas story preached by popular and western culture was one of comfort, simplicity and kindness, the Christmas story I discovered was unravelled in a context of discomfort, complexity and oppression. A context that I could identify a lot more as a Palestinian Christian who faces numerus challenges and as a minority who is discriminated.
The people of Israel in the second temple period were under occupation, oppression and despair. The Roman Empire dictated every aspect of life and enforced its will by the sword. The emperor Augustus was considered a god and required worship from Roman citizens. In addition, the local Jewish leadership at the temple were fixated with maintaining the position and influence they had through negotiation with King Herod and the Romans, and by doing so, missing what God was doing through history and expecting the Messiah to overthrow the Romans with military force. Also today, people are obsessed and drawn to political power which demands a certain amount of loyalty.
It is in this story of political, religious and social unrest that God decides to reveal himself. Moreover, he revealed himself not in the palaces or the temple of Jerusalem, but in a small household in Bethlehem. And those who attended his birth were not the elite or powerful, but the marginalised, oppressed and different. It was a young woman who was considered by some to be unfaithful and her husband who was a carpenter, shepherds who were at the bottom of the socio-economic class and foreigners from afar. An unexpected and unusual company to welcome the king of kings who was to liberate them.
This Christmas story that I had learned could not be more relevant to my Palestinian context! By following Christ and embracing the Christmas story, you automatically place yourself with the outcasts of political and social powers. I could not believe I had never heard anyone preach or teach about these aspects of the Christmas story. Even many Christians would only emphasise the birth of Christ and completely ignore its contextual message. Christmas is a story of liberation from oppression, both spiritual and physical (for whatever those two binaries mean). It is a story that gives hope to those who are ignored, live under occupation and marginalised. As Palestinian Christians this resonates very well, especially as our community encounters injustices on a daily basis and is shrinking more and more.
Indeed, the Christmas holiday is appealing to many of my Jewish and Muslim neighbours, as well as Christians. But the contextual and theological story of Christmas is full of challenging messages to how we live our lives in Palestine/Israel and around the world. Are we going to continue celebrating the holiday in a superficial manner? Or are we going to allow the hopeful message of Christ to reach the most oppressed, marginalised, and voiceless people in our respective contexts?
For when we embrace this Christmas message of hope and liberation for these communities, we join the Kingdom of God which opposes every wicked authority and leadership. There is a danger in our time to miss the work of God in history and maintain our gaze on political and religious individuals or trends like many did during the Christmas story. As the Kingdom of God works like yeast and a mustard seed, its impact and effect are not seen immediately. And this message is far more threatening to political, religious and social powers than any Christmas tree you will see.
Musalaha Executive Director — Salim J. Munayer
Originally published in Radix Magazine Vol. 41, No. 2
Online available by 19/12/2020: LINK