Christmas is a popular holiday in Iraq

Shrill and colorful, brightly glittering fir trees in Dubai on the Persian Gulf? No problem. Fairy lights in front of Istanbul shops and Santa Clauses in red robes in Beirut's shopping malls? Of course. In Cairo, street vendors meander through the constant traffic jam and hold flashing pointed hats in front of the window for drivers, regardless of whether they are Copts or Muslims. And they find buyers, regardless of whether they are Christian or Muslim. At the pyramids of Giza, camels are put on red Christmas hats to get tourists in the middle of the desert sand in the mood for a wintry Christmas. Even in the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia there is something like a pre-Christmas mood: In the "Winter Wonderland" in Riyadh, visitors can ice skate, palm trees wear fairy lights.

Most of the large cities in the Muslim Middle East appear in festive splendor this December. Christmas, the most popular Christian festival, has long since arrived in the region where it all began 2000 years ago. In the Middle East, Christians are only a small minority. Nevertheless, here, as in Turkey, is celebrated. And in a big way and widespread - and not just by Christians.

In Basra there is a tree hung with tear gas canisters

In Iraq, the Christian festival of festivals after the reign of terror of the terrorist militia IS in Fallujah and Ramadi in the west and Mosul in the north of the country has even been an official holiday since 2018. This year it will not be forgotten during the anti-government protests, in which people die almost every day. Christmas becomes a political statement: demonstrators in Basra, southern Iraq, hang an evergreen plastic Christmas tree with empty tear gas canisters and cartridge cases and the photos of the government critics killed at rallies.

The politicization of the festival is the big exception. In neighboring Jordan, there is a Christmas market in the capital Amman. Visitors pay admission to experience a little "magical Christmas magic" under the palm trees, as the organizers promise. For the opening, a Santa Claus roped down from the sky, it was raining artificial snow, and a huge Christmas tree shone in blue LED light. Only six percent of Jordanians are Christians. This roughly corresponds to the proportion of the population of Muslims in Germany.

In Ramadan, a holy month of fasting for Muslims, lanterns dangle over German pedestrian zones or baklava and dates are sold there and non-Muslims join in the celebrations will rarely be found. Probably nowhere in Germany. Instead, the complaint that Christmas markets are being renamed winter markets is spreading on the internet - supposedly out of consideration for Muslims. There are plenty of conspiracy theories out there. Right-wing networks in particular warn against an alleged "Islamization of the Christian Occident".


A festival is becoming increasingly popular in Israel:

Chrismukkah. This year, the Christmas holidays and the Jewish festival of lights Hanukkah coincide. Decorated conifers are now a natural part of the street scene in Israel, and Christmas decorations can be bought in shops. The cookbook author Natalie Gleitman from Munich offered courses on baking cookies this year, which were well attended. And two types of ice cream are particularly hip in Tel Aviv: gingerbread and vanilla croissant ice cream. What else? AFS

And what about the "Christianization of the Islamic Orient"? Although the majority of Arabs are Muslims, with the glittering Christmas trees everywhere, hardly anyone complains about such a trend, says sociology professor Amro Ali from the American University in Cairo. Little-noticed preachers would rarely warn against a westernization of the Muslim world. Ali knows both worlds. He grew up in Australia and studied there. In 2015 he received a scholarship from the Berlin Science Center for Social Research. For several years he has been living in Alexandria, Egypt, in his parents' homeland. During this time the Christmas festivities would have assumed "undreamt-of dimensions".

Although Orthodox Christians, like the Copts in Egypt, don't celebrate Christmas until January 6th and 7th, everything is decorated by the beginning of December. Amro Ali sees this as "part of a globalization process", beyond any religious message. Valentine's Day is now also celebrated in Muslim countries, with heart-shaped balloons and rose garlands in the shop windows. In the often autocratic countries, this commercialization is only acceptable to the governments. They would rather see the citizens as consumers than as activists: "When they shop, they don't cause any problems," says Ali. Shopping centers are considered "safe places", no political associations are founded there, only wallets are emptied. You stand in front of the Christmas tree, take photos for your Instagram friends and wish "Merry Christmas". Ali says: "In certain layers, it is part of the job to be as open-minded and multilingual as possible."

This has been known for a long time in Turkey. First of all, Kemalists, who value the secular character of the republic, decorated their houses with fir trees. They wanted to show how western they are. The strictly secular newspaper Cumhuriyet This year also referred to "the old Turkish tradition" of decorating trees "with strips of fabric". After all, trees were sacred to nomadic peoples. In shamanic ideas the branches reach into the sky and the roots reach down into the underworld. Wish trees with pieces of fabric tied to the branches are indeed common around the Mediterranean.

Self-proclaimed internet preachers regularly explain to religious Turks that it is haram, so it is sinful to join in celebrating Christian festivals. But there is something irresistible about the lust for the shine of lights, and it is also commercially worthwhile. In Turkish cities, many shops and restaurants are now decorated with green plastic Christmas trees - mostly made in China. "Our customers like it," says a fashion saleswoman on Istanbul's Istiklal shopping street, "we call it the New Year's tree." Gifts are then also bought for New Year's Eve. A Santa Claus robot is dancing in front of a pharmacy. In Turkey, people even proudly point out that the birthplace of St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, was in Asia Minor, i.e. in what is now Turkey. "Noel Baba" is his name here. This is borrowed from French, many do not associate it with Christmas at all.

When Gabriele Pace, Protestant pastor in Istanbul, is asked by her neighbors why she is currently so busy, she says: "Yes, because of Christmas." And realizes that not everyone can do something with it, despite the festively decorated shopping streets. But Pace is happy about the shine of lights. Her church, the pastor knows, will be fuller on Christmas Eve than usual. "It's like in Germany," she says, most of them only come on the holidays.

New Year's Eve is celebrated in Saudi Arabia - this is also a novelty

The sociologist Amro Ali says that participating in a global event like Christmas gives people in the Middle East the feeling of belonging to a world in which they would otherwise have little part. Most Arabs can't even get on a plane to see the magic of Christmas in New York. Even if they had the money, they often cannot get a visa for Western countries. This could lead to frustration, especially in the younger generation, and for some even to self-hatred. "These feelings are a holdover from colonization. Many Arabs feel left behind and therefore adopt symbols that they associate with progress." Ali does not see a religious component in this. There are stars on the tree tops, not crosses.

Christmas is followed by New Year's Eve. In the late Ottoman Empire, the beginning of the year was put on January 1st by law in 1917, before there were other times. But even to this day, strict Muslims regard New Year celebrations as "pagan". Bars in Istanbul invite you to New Year's Eve parties, but people argue about it every year on social media.

But even on New Year's Eve, commerce dictates the change: In Saudi Arabia, as local media report, there could be major celebrations for the first time at the beginning of 2020 - a novelty in a country where the holidays are based on the Islamic lunar calendar.