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Beirutis briefly brush aside anxieties to celebrate Christmas

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Four months after the end of a bitter war, Christmas has come to Beirut.

It shows in the visits of Lebanese Christians to New Testament sites in Israel. Its secular side is startlingly visible in the return of Santa Claus to this city's reviving shopping districts.

The European-originated Santa can be found walking in costume and white beard , without much of a paunch (perhaps in respect to Beirut's recent hard times), in front of the Toyfair toy store in West Beirut.

His presence reflects one of those strange paradoxes so common to the Lebanese capital: After a summer under Israeli siege, without water or electricity, under repeated bombing and shelling, west Beirut has reemerged phoenix-like to celebrate Christmas in style.

Hamra Street, west Beirut's Fifth Avenue, is jammed with Christmas shoppers. It had become shabby and sad under the pressure of years of civil conflict that destroyed or drove out many shops and brought innumerable bands of armed young militiamen to its streetcorners.

Over this thoroughfare where Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese leftist forces waving rocket-propelled grenade launchers, once zoomed by in jeeps, tinsel and plastic Santas have been strung at frequent intervals. Red Christmas lights glow down on the shoppers at night.

Stores like My Lady and Red Shoe are full of expensive French and Italian clothing. Other stores are jammed with electronic appliances and new video toys. Fancy bonbons wrapped in gilt paper go for $15 a kilo. Side streets are cluttered with real and artificial Christmas trees and poinsettias in total disregard to the blockage of traffic.

What makes the scene more paradoxical is that west Beirut was the center of Muslim leftist and Palestinian activity. But west Beirut was also the most cosmopolitan part of the city with Muslims, Christians, and foreigners living side-by-side. Nearby are international business headquarters and the American University of Beirut.

Christmas celebrations on Hamra were traditional before the 1975-76 civil war began battering the area. People have returned to them with a consumerist vengeance.

''They want to wipe out years of bad memories with one,'' explains a Lebanese journalist.

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