By Issam Abdallah
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Near the wreckage of Beirut's port, a charity is bringing Christmas cheer to a city hammered by a devastating explosion, rising coronavirus infections and the worst economic crisis since Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
The Solidarity Christmas Village, decked out with flashing fairy lights and glittering trees, has been offering visitors free entry to watch concerts and pick up drinks and snacks, lifting the mood of families who can't afford seasonal luxuries.
People dressed in giant polar bear costumes and others in Santa Claus outfits offer some festive spirit to a country that is a patchwork of Christian and Muslim sects.
"We need to make our children happy .... even if we are tired," said Toni Hossainy, who had brought her son.
The Christmas village has been set up in a temporary warehouse near the port, flattened by a huge explosion on Aug. 4 which also ruined a swathe of the capital.
Near the port's shattered entrance, an artist erected a towering Christmas tree decorated not with shiny baubles but with grimy protective clothing and hard hats worn by firefighters who had battled the port conflagration.
The blast left tens of thousands homeless in a nation already crushed by a mountain of debt.
Opera singer Elias Francis gave a concert to open the Christmas village, bringing his own microphone as a precaution against the fast-spreading coronavirus.
"No matter how negative things are around us, like the blast, like the coronavirus, like the economic situation which is very bad, there is still a glimmer of hope," he said.
In a predominantly Christian quarter of Beirut, Nina said her shop selling Christmas trinkets had been packed in previous years but now closes early because there are so few customers.
Tears welled up as Georgette Suleiman, 63, who looks after a Beirut school damaged by the blast, remembered the challenges of 2020. "God willing, this Christmas will bring us joy and hope, and Lebanon will return to how it was," she said.
(Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Giles Elgood)