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This picture taken on December 14, 2021 shows a view of a statue of Saint Nicholas (Father Christmas or Santa Claus) outside the entrance of a toy shop in the popular market of the Burj Hammoud neighbourhood of Beirut. Image Credit: AFP

Beirut: Beirut in December was once a shopping extravaganza, where day-long traffic jams clogged streets decked out with flashing Christmas lights and building-sized billboards advertising champagne and jewellery.

In barely two years of a brutal economic collapse, the lights have gone out on Beirut’s commercial heyday and power shortages have left the city’s streets shrouded in gloom.

This year, the roadside billboards tell a different, more frugal story: one that reflects the worst financial crisis to ever hit the once free-spending Middle Eastern country.

Steel safes, banknote counters, discounts on money transfers - the offers plastered on the bridges straddling the main highway into Beirut aren’t your typical Christmas pleasers.

“Sales of safes and vaults have increased by 35 to 50 per cent since the start of the economic crisis in 2019,” a sales representative at Smartsecurity LB, one of the main retailers in Lebanon, told AFP.

Alarms and CCTV systems are also selling like hot cakes.

The lack of trust in banks that are widely blamed for the worst financial crisis in Lebanon’s history has raised the estimated amount of cash stashed away in Lebanese homes to a whopping $10 billion.

“We’re at minus 90 per cent compared to pre-2019 crisis levels,” said Antonio Vincenti, chairman of the Pikasso out-of-home advertising company, a market leader in Lebanon.

‘Last Christmas’

The banks, whose campaigns were once ubiquitous on his billboards, are insolvent, sometimes replaced by money transfer companies offering to funnel the diaspora’s precious dollars into the country.

“Digital screens remain switched off, mostly because of the problems we face in electricity supply,” Vincenti said.

The government provides barely two hours a day of mains electricity and the cost of powering the screens with newly non-subsidised diesel would outstrip the income from clients.

In Beirut’s long-deserted downtown area, where luxury brands used to be concentrated, one apologetic Christmas sign still flashes at night with the words: “Despite it all”.

On Hamra, a main thoroughfare in central Beirut, there is little left of the high street Christmas shopping vibe and the mood echoes the popular hashtag “Santa bala shanta” (Santa without a sack).

Municipality budgets cannot keep traffic lights switched on, let alone the miles of string lights that used to canopy the street throughout December.

Even Wham’s usually unescapable seasonal hit “Last Christmas” is nowhere to be heard, a relief to some perhaps, but a sure sign that something has changed.

On shop windows, Christmas sale posters are outnumbered by “We’re Closed” signs - and beggars have replaced Santa impersonators on the street outside.

‘No joy left’

The busiest shops are foreign exchange booths, which now provide free black plastic bags in which to carry out bulging wads of the ever depreciating Lebanese pound.

Four out of five Lebanese are now considered poor, according to the UN income threshold of $2 a day.

At a supermarket in an upscale neighbourhood of the capital, a half-bottle of the cheapest champagne costs 900,000 Lebanese pounds, substantially more than the minimum monthly wage, now worth less than $25 on the black market.

In previous years, gigantic pyramids of panettone and Christmas hampers overflowing with foie gras and cognac obstructed the aisles.

“This year there’s an offer on detergent! Buy one, get one free,” Christine Kreidy said, laughing, as she pushed her empty trolley past the welcome displays and into the silent store.

“I suppose it’s an opportunity to focus on the real meaning of Christmas but I have to admit I used to enjoy Christmas shopping,” the 49-year-old said.

“That’s the thing though in Lebanon now: whether it’s Christmas or any other day, there’s no joy left.”