On a gloomy, rainy Saturday morning in Beirut, 92-year-old Julia enthusiastically greeted her visitors, Christian and Muslim youth, who had come to set up a Christmas tree in her modest apartment.
"Welcome. I love you," she said to her guests, who each greeted the beaming woman with kisses before breaking out in a chorus of "Jingle Bells."
Julia, a Maronite Catholic, was one of 10 beneficiaries Dec. 8 of a Christmas tree decoration project for poor elderly that brought together Lebanese volunteers from the Knights of Malta, a Catholic organization, and "Who is Hussein," a Muslim Shiite organization, as well as Girl Guides associated with the local St. Vincent de Paul.
Widowed for 40 years, Julia had spent her life as a homemaker. She lives with her 66-year-old unmarried son, Nicholas, who has difficulty finding work in his trade as a house painter.
There are no government-sponsored services for the needy in Lebanon. Julia is one of the beneficiaries of the Knights of Malta Lebanon's Elderly Guardianship Program, in which the order's youth volunteers visit the homes of elderly on a monthly basis.
And on this day, Julia was gleefully basking in the royal treatment, seated near her street-level balcony window, as her visitors enthusiastically demonstrated teamwork: assembling the tree, untangling and attaching lights and hanging brilliantly colored ornaments, singing "Gloria in Excelsis Deo."
"Jesus Christ called us to bring joy to people, to help make their lives better," 17-year-old Girl Guide Lea Chalhoub told Catholic News Service as she decorated Julia's tree. "Lebanon is a country of Muslims and Christians living together, and so we need to work hand-in-hand to build a better society."
"Jesus wants us to help people, especially at Christmas," added Thea Rizkallah, age 8.
Switching to entertainment mode, some from the group danced to Christmas tunes streamed from a phone. Clapping and singing along, soon Julia could hardly contain herself, joining them for a little jig, her cane held out horizontally like a vaudeville star.
"My legs and arms are not so strong anymore," Julia apologized, resuming her dance in a seated position, tapping her cane to the beat.
Then, choosing a shade from a mish-mash of items stored in a container beside her, Julia asked to have her nails painted. Malta volunteer Zahraa Omeiry applied the festive maroon color like a caress to each finger, as the singing continued. A neighbor, passing by on the street with groceries, stopped at the balcony window to peer in on the festivities, asking, "Is it your wedding day?" as Julia proudly showed off her nails.
Among Julia's visitors, Zahraa and her cousin, Nour Omeiry, Shiite Muslims, recently joined the Malta group at Beirut's Jesuit-run St. Joseph University, where they are both studying political science.
"It's so important to help the less fortunate, to make people smile," Nour Omeiry told Catholic News Service.
"We are all human and we have to live together," she said of Muslim-Christian coexistence. "It's great to bond with each other and to share something we all like to do," she added. Like many Muslims in Lebanon, her family always observes Christmas with a small tree and a family dinner.
With a manger placed under its boughs, Julia's tree was illuminated to great cheers, and together the young and old sang "Feliz Navidad."
"Thanks be to God. You are better than gold," Julia told her visitors.
Nicholas, who had quietly kept to himself on the balcony to allow his mother to solely relish in the attention, told CNS: "I'm so thankful that God has blessed us with this visit. I feel at peace when I see my mom so happy," he added, his eyes filled with emotion.
The Knights of Malta manages a network of 30 different operations throughout Lebanon, including community health centers, mobile medical units and day care centers for the elderly.
The Lebanese chapter of "Who is Hussein" sponsors activities such as taking flowers to hospitals for the sick and poor and distributing food during the season of Ramadan and its "10 days of kindness" outreach during the feast of Ashura.
Young people from both groups also have collaborated by serving elderly poor the Iftar feast during Ramadan.