by Saud Abu Ramadan
GAZA, Dec. 21 (Xinhua) -- As a Christian family living in the besieged Gaza Strip, George Mattas, his wife Elianoor and their five children have tried hard to buy a Christmas tree.
They finally got a plastic green one and placed it in the hall of their house in Remal district in western Gaza City to ornament it with lights and small Christmas gifts.
George, 46 years old, felt relieved when sitting on a chair and watching his family as well as friends hanging gifts, bills and lights on the two-meter-tall Christmas tree for celebrations on the Christmas eve.
Mattas owns a store in the downtown of Gaza City to sell garments for kids. His business has suffered a lot in the past three years due to the closure of the border crossings between Gaza and Israel, he said.
"I'm not able to import clothes and my store is empty," he said, adding that all aspects of life in Gaza have become very difficult due to the Israeli siege that has been imposed on the Gaza Strip for more than three years.
"We really hope that the new year will be better than the previous years, and will bring peace and prosperity to the Palestinian people," said Mattas.
Currently, there are only 3,000 Christians living in the Gaza Strip ruled by Islamic Hamas movement since it routed security forces loyal to the West-backed President Mahmoud Abbas and seized control of the coastal enclave in June 2007.
Before the Hamas takeover, around 5,000 Christians lived in the strip of around 1.5 million. Many Christian families chose to leave the impoverished Palestinian territory either to the West Bank or to Europe and the United States after the infighting and the latest Israeli war on Gaza in January.
Most of the Christians in the Gaza Strip are Greek Orthodox, who usually celebrate Christmas, according to their calendar, on Jan. 7 every year. But the Mattas family belongs to the Latin Church which celebrates Christmas on Dec. 24.
Earlier this month, Israel announced that it would issue hundreds of permits to the Gaza Christians to attend Christmas celebrations in the West Bank city of Bethlehem this year.
But with only three days left, the Mattas family have not yet received any travel permission. "If we don't go to Bethlehem this year, we will celebrate Christmas at home," said Mattas.
Gaza Christians said Israel would only allow people who are over 35 years old and who are below 16 years old to go to Bethlehem, adding that only 200 Christians from Gaza will be able to attend Christmas in Bethlehem this year.
So for the majority of the small Christian community in Gaza who can not get permission to go to Bethlehem this year, to pray at the Latin Church in Gaza and then stay at home are the last option they have to choose.
Many Gaza Christians said that there will be no big celebrations in the Gaza Strip as it used to be in the past.
"On the eve of Christmas, we go to the only Latin Church in Gaza City for prayers, then we go home to cook food. Most of the families gather and have lunch together. On Christmas day, we usually visit our relatives and our friends," said Hazem al-Jelda, another Christian from Gaza.
Al-Jelda, who made a Christmas tree by himself, said that they used to decorate a giant Christmas tree every year in the center of Gaza City, where Santa Claus gave out gifts to people in the street. Now, the Gaza municipality is unable to afford a tree.
"Each year, we decorate our schools and churches in Christmas colors; but not this year," he said, adding that, "Paper and drawing materials are scarce, and if we happen to find some at the market, we cannot afford them."
"Santa Claus is empty handed this year," said al-Jelda, adding that "Instead of chocolates, Santa Claus gave strawberry plants that are plentiful because many plants destined to be exported to Europe have been blocked by the Israelis."
George Awad, the father of the Latin Church in Gaza, said "We really want to live like other people in the world. In this feast we will pray for Palestinian reconciliation and will pray for the end of the siege in order to go to Bethlehem, the city of peace birth."
The 22-day Israeli offensive against Gaza that began on Dec. 27last year came on the heels of Christmas, he said, adding that "during the war, we prayed at home while hearing the bombings in the Gaza Strip."
"Our children imagined that the explosions were for celebrating Christmas," said father Awad, adding "We all pray to have a peaceful new year without wars and without killing."