We spent Christmas 2004 in Damascus, Syria. Jeremy's brother and sister were in town visiting for a couple of weeks and we had been traveling together in Turkey and northern Syria just before Christmas, and would leave for Jordan and Egypt just after Christmas. Christmas Eve, however, we spent in Damascus. It was a Friday, so we had the day off from work and school. We went to church with our tiny (six total people on a good day) congregation at the humanitarian volunteers' apartment. The volunteers, called missionaries in most other countries where they're actually allowed to preach, were a retired couple who always did their best to bring the comforts of home to a country as foreign as Syria. Part of that effort included constructing a makeshift Christmas tree out of colored lights and a bedsheet. The star on top was cut out of the packaging for Ferrero Rocher chocolates.
After church, we headed into the Christian Quarter of the Old City to enjoy some Christmas festivity. There were lights and decorations up on the buildings and homes just like any other part of the Christian world. In the Souq al-Hamadiyye, there was even Christmas-themed lingerie on sale. The most ostentatious outfit featured a jolly Santa face with flashing lights on each cup of a bra. (Though now that I think about it, that particular piece of underwear was available all year long.)
A friend of ours had told us about a good nativity scene to go see that was put on by the Syrian equivalent of the Boy Scouts. We went to the sponsoring church to take a look and it was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. To this day, the best way I can think of to describe it is that it was pretty much a Christmas haunted house. We entered an elaborate reconstruction of a 1st-century stable, which was more like a cave than a wooden structure. The path through the cave was dark and winding, and each turn featured a sudden display of some part of the nativity story. Besides being surprised at every curve in the path by artful reconstructions of wise men and barnyard animals, the most alarming part about the Christmas haunted house was that the walls of the cave were made out of wrinkled, heavy, brown paper. That wouldn't have been a problem, of course, except that the lighting inside the cave was entirely by candle. Yes, nothing says Christmas in Syria like the fire hazard of open flame inside a structure made out of paper.
After narrowly escaping a fiery death, we went and visited a family in the Christian Quarter. Jeremy had stayed with them as a BYU student in the spring of 2001 and we still visited them from time to time. Even though we gave them no advance notice of our coming to pay a call, they received us with grace and sat down with us for a while to sing songs and serve us alcohol-filled chocolates.
I've put together a video for your viewing pleasure, showing you just a few minutes of Christmas Eve in Damascus. Some parts are muted, either because Jeremy is saying something ridiculous or because I didn't want to tell the whole world the names of the people we visited.