Lebanon endures gloomy Christmas amid currency crash

Freedivers dressed in Santa Claus costumes pose for a picture while submerged under water off the coast of Lebanon’s northern city of Batroun on Friday. (AFP)
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Freedivers dressed in Santa Claus costumes pose for a picture while submerged under water off the coast of Lebanon’s northern city of Batroun on Friday. (AFP)
Michel Tawil, a gift shop keeper, wraps a gift at a shop in Beirut, Lebanon December 22, 2021. Picture taken December 22, 2021. (REUTERS)
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Michel Tawil, a gift shop keeper, wraps a gift at a shop in Beirut, Lebanon December 22, 2021. Picture taken December 22, 2021. (REUTERS)
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Updated 25 December 2021

Lebanon endures gloomy Christmas amid currency crash

Freedivers dressed in Santa Claus costumes pose for a picture while submerged under water off the coast of Lebanon’s northern city of Batroun on Friday. (AFP)
  • Maronite Patriarch Al-Rahi calls on politicians to visit the homes of hungry people
  • Many parents forced to tell children: ‘Santa Claus will not be coming this year’

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Christians will celebrate Christmas this year amid some of the harshest economic conditions in the country’s history, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi said on Friday.

In his Christmas message, Al-Rahi reprimanded Lebanon’s politicians for “ruminating on disagreements.”

Al-Rahi said: “It would be better if officials would walk among the people, roam the streets, enter homes, visit the sick, talk to parents, listen to their suffering and the cries of their children, and see how many people go to bed hungry every night.

“It would serve them well to see how many people are homeless now, how many girls and boys are not enrolled in schools.

“If they were to see the situation in public hospitals and schools, orphanages and institutions for people with special needs, they would be ashamed of themselves and they would resign,” he said.

“Despite all that, we see the people in power immersed in their conflicts and looking for tricks, compromises and bargains to take revenge, to distance their opponents, to appoint their accomplices, and plot to postpone the parliamentary and presidential elections, only to serve their personal interest, at the expense of Lebanon and the Lebanese,” Al-Rahi stressed.

The patriarch’s plea came as Christmas decorations — much like market activity — appeared timid in most Lebanese regions.

Many Lebanese will not celebrate a festive Christmas this year following the country’s financial collapse and fears over a COVID-19 outbreak over the holidays.

Thousands of Lebanese expatriates, including those who left Lebanon over the past couple of years, have flocked back home for the holidays.

“On Wednesday alone, 91 planes carrying Lebanese returning to spend the holidays with their families and to renew their confidence in Lebanon landed at Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport,” said Public Works and Transport Minister Ali Hamia.

Streets that used to be bright with Christmas lights have plunged into darkness amid the power cuts and rationing hours.

Two years into the country’s unprecedented economic crisis, many Lebanese have forgotten what holiday joy feels like.

People in supermarkets have complained of an additional rise in prices.

“Everything is priced in US dollars or in Lebanese pounds based on the black market exchange rate, except for our salaries. How can we live like this?” Rana, a housewife, told Arab News.

It would be better if officials would walk among the people, roam the streets, enter homes, visit the sick, talk to parents, listen to their suffering and the cries of their children, and see how many people go to bed hungry every night.

Maronite Patriarch, Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi

The price of a kilogram of chestnuts — a popular food during the holiday season — reached 150,000 Lebanese pounds ($99), while the price of an imported mango reached 50,000 Lebanese pounds.

A Christmas staple, the traditional cake, is also expensive, and being sold in many stores for more than 300,000 Lebanese pounds.

Jewelry traders have reported almost no sales during the Christmas season, and many parents have told their children that Santa Claus will not be coming on Dec. 25.

Meanwhile, a growing number of beggars have been imploring restaurantgoers for food scraps, with four out of five Lebanese are now living below the poverty line.

The most humiliating scene this Christmas came when public sector employees, members of the military and security service personnel were filmed queuing for hours in front of banks to collect their salaries.

The Lebanese Central Bank had issued a circular allowing public sector workers to buy dollars from banks at a fixed exchange rate.

And by taking those dollars and exchanging them for Lebanese pounds at the black market rate, some employees were able to net an extra 450,000 Lebanese pounds for every $100.

Based on the black market rate, military personnel now make less than $50. Before the economic crisis, their salaries were equivalent to about $1,000.

Footage of the scenes went viral online, provoking outrage from hundreds of activists and Lebanese citizens.

“Market activity is slow,” said Nicolas Chammas, chairman of the Beirut Merchants Association.

“We had hoped things would pick up during the holidays, especially after the losses that the sector endured during summer,” he added.

“Unfortunately, shoppers were few and their purchasing power has significantly diminished. This is the weakest holiday season we’ve experienced since 1975.

“Even in the midst of the war, the market had never witnessed such depression. Very few people bought toys, electronics, jewelry, and perfumes this year.

“Before the economic crisis, these products were resulting in an income of $250 million per week before Christmas. Today, we estimate only $10 million to $15 million per day. This is a real disaster.”

He attributed the change to a decline in purchasing power among the Lebanese public.

People need to secure their basic needs first in terms of food and fuel before they can consider buying gifts, Chammas said.

“We’ve hit rock bottom. Only about 50 percent of shops have survived the crisis, but not all will make it through the year,” he added.

“The few people who contributed to market activity this Christmas are expatriates who returned to Lebanon for the holidays.”

Pierre Al-Ashkar, head of the Syndicate of Hotel Owners in Lebanon, has warned that the return of expatriates during the holiday season will fail to revitalize the tourism sector.

He said that about 90 percent of expatriates own homes in Lebanon. Very few Arab tourists are also arriving for holiday, Al-Ashkar added.